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Born-Digital Archives in the Undergraduate Classroom


This case study describes a first-year seminar titled “Born Digital,” taught by a university library faculty member within a digital humanities curricular initiative at a small liberal arts college. This course explored the concept of “born-digital archives” and asked the following questions: How will future scholars understand the twenty-first century world of fragmented and fragile knowledge production and storage? What can creators do to ensure their content will continue to serve as record of their community? How do archivists adjust to a new paradigm where collecting decisions must be made in an instant?

The course embedded significant training in digital competencies and information literacy skills within a seminar on digital memory and archival theory. We examined issues related to the ethics of appraisal, privacy, digital obsolescence, underrepresented communities, media studies, and collective memory. A series of hands-on lab sessions gave students the technical skills to create their own web archives on the Archive-It platform. For undergraduates, a course on born-digital archives can provide a critical window into understanding modern archival practices and concerns, as well as our personal and collective responsibilities as media producers and consumers. This article addresses the lessons learned when adapting professional practices for an undergraduate audience.


“The average lifespan of a webpage is 100 days.” This striking statistic has made its way into several popular magazine articles in the last few years. These articles, published in places like The Atlantic (LaFrance 2015) and The New Yorker (Lepore 2015) are alarmist in tone, but they do dispel the notion that the web is a place of permanence. The mourning period for Geocities may be over, but the recent shuttering of Storify, and Photobucket’s “breaking of the Internet” by blocking image links for thousands of users following a subscription restructuring (Notopoulos 2017) remind us that our content will not be available in perpetuity. Even the source of this statistic was hard to track down due to link rot.[1]

It was experiences similar to this one—the troublesome journey through dead links to verify a citation—that inspired the creation of a first-year undergraduate seminar on the topic of born-digital archives, as a way to engage students in the realities of accessing and constructing a historical record. One of the exciting outcomes of the popularity of digital humanities projects in the undergraduate classroom is the increased engagement with the material and staff of local archives and special collections. For college students born in the twenty-first century, these DH projects create a tangible connection with a past where letters, ledgers, and newspapers were the primary modes of mass communication and record keeping. But what about the artifacts of our time? We produce millions of records on a daily basis in the form of email, social media, and the detritus of a 24-hour news cycle. Will these records even survive 100 days? How will future scholars understand the twenty-first century world of fragmented, fragile, and ephemeral knowledge production and storage? What can creators do to ensure their content will survive as a record of their community? How do archivists adjust to a new paradigm where collecting decisions must be made in an instant? Digital archivists are starting to figure out how to handle the vast volumes of data at risk. Just as importantly, they are working to establish best practices for ethical collecting. Is anything on the web fair game for capture? Is it right to ignore robots.txt? For undergraduates, a course on born-digital archives can provide a critical window into understanding modern archival practices, as well as their own responsibilities as media producers and consumers.

This View from the Field will describe a first-year seminar titled “Born Digital,” taught by a university library faculty member within a digital humanities curricular initiative at Washington and Lee University.[2] Since this course was taught at the introductory level in a multi-disciplinary environment, its methods and assignments could be adapted to a variety of classes. The course embedded significant training in digital competencies and information literacy skills within a seminar on digital memory and archival theory. We began with reflective conversations on the experience of being a “digital native,” and then moved on to exploring the concepts and skills necessary to create a born-digital archive using the Archive-It platform.[3] This case study will share the lessons learned while adapting professional archival practices for an undergraduate audience.

Course Design and Framing

How do born-digital objects and records change the way we approach teaching? There is an abundance of literature on teaching with archival material and digital technologies. A search for model courses returns digital history courses similar to Shawn Graham’s “Crafting Digital History”[4] and graduate-level courses on digital preservation from library and information programs. Creating a seminar on born-digital archives required adapting these graduate-level models to an undergraduate audience unfamiliar with the professional and methodological practices of archivists and historians.

Because our course explored new territory, it was essential to find readings that exposed students to the rich scholarly conversation around archival principles without weighing them down with jargon. Several texts met these criteria and were instrumental in shaping the course. Abbey Smith Rumsey’s When We Are No More (2016) provides a high-level view of our relationship with information. From the ancient Greeks to the development of modern science, Rumsey contextualizes the modern information revolution for students who were born after the invention of Google and reminds us that “we have a lot of information from the past about how people have made these choices before” (Rumsey 2016, 7). For the nuts and bolts of digital preservation, we relied on Trevor Owens’s Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (2017), available as a pre-print at the time of the course. Not only is Owens well respected in the digital preservation world, his writing is engaging and approachable for undergraduates. Owens’s purpose for the text, offering “a path for getting beyond the hyperbole and the anxiety of ‘the digital’ and establish[ing] a baseline of practice” (Owens 2017, 6) fit well with the goals of the course. Our final course text, The Web as History: Using Web Archives to Understand the Past and Present (Brügger and Schroeder 2017), was essential for modeling the way scholars make meaning from born-digital archives. Ian Milligan’s chapter, “Welcome to the web: The online community of Geocities during the early years of the World Wide Web,” contextualizes Geocities in its time and provides examples of computational approaches to web archives (Brügger and Schroeder 2017).

The learning objectives for the course, listed below, drew from overlapping frameworks.

  • Students will learn and be able to apply the principles of archival theory and practice.
  • Students will think critically about the use and creation of digital records in their own lives and communities.
  • Students will analyze “born digital” archives through the lens of their chosen discipline(s).
  • Students will practice methods for collecting and preserving born-digital archives by conducting their own digital preservation project.

These objectives gesture toward the established digital humanities learning outcomes from A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities[5] (Burdick et al. 2012), adopted by our curricular initiative. These outcomes emphasize the ability to assess information technologies and practice design thinking. The Association of College and Research Libraries’ Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education served as this course’s backbone (Association of College and Research Libraries 2015).[6] Students were asked to think critically about information in every assignment. From writing an annotated bibliography to creating metadata for their web archive, students moved from savvy information consumers to thoughtful information producers. The lab exercises drew from Bryn Mawr’s Digital Competencies initiative and framework. Students developed “digital survival skills” like file structure navigation, troubleshooting, and digital writing and publishing skills like HTML and CSS (Bryn Mawr College n.d.).

Structure and Assignments

This course[7] took place during a twelve-week term in the winter of 2018. We met for ninety minutes twice a week and divided the week into discussion and lab days. Thematically, the course began with three weeks of introductions to the major concepts of the course: the idea of the “digital native,” collective memory, record keeping, and archives as institutions. The first assignment was a personal essay on these concepts and provided an initial indication of students’ comprehension and writing ability. Starting with this framing gave students an opportunity to share personal information and ultimately created a strong sense of community within the class.

In week four, we transitioned out of the personal sphere with a visit to the university library’s Special Collections and Archives department. After an introduction to the unit and its operations, students formed small groups and selected from a small pool of manuscript collections. For the second assignment, students unpacked each collection to learn about its creator, context, and provenance. The hands-on experience with archival sources readied them to consider individual archival principles like original order and respect des fonds (the idea that archival records should be grouped by creator). We even discussed the role and resources of the Special Collections and Archives department within our institutional context.

After week seven, we devoted each week to discussing one aspect of the records management lifecycle—appraisal, acquisition, arrangement and description, access, and outreach. Students worked toward their final project through a series of assignments: an annotated bibliography of existing born-digital collections and scholarly articles on a potential topic, a proposal for their born-digital collection, a process log, a short presentation, and a final reflection. Their final project was conducted through an educational partnership with Archive-It, a web archiving service. For a fee, we received 15GB of space in an Archive-It account and a live training session from an Archive-It staff member. Students selected ten websites on a topic of their choosing, from NFL protests to cryptocurrency.[8] They crawled each of their URLs to create a snapshot that would be preserved by the Internet Archive. The process log was the primary graded product to ensure that platform difficulties did not unevenly affect students.

Labs and Technical Skills

Throughout the course, we held a series of lab days to learn the technical skills necessary for the web archiving project. Lab days were relaxed and instructions were available on the course website so students could work at their own pace. Grouping students by operating system helped with peer-to-peer problem solving when technical errors occurred. On the first day, we built simple websites with HTML and CSS—essential languages for troubleshooting captured websites in Archive-It. Another lab session focused on the command line, using existing tutorials like “The Command Line Crash Course (Shaw n.d.).[9] This skill came in useful when a guest speaker led a workshop on Twarc, a command line tool for capturing social media data (specifically Twitter), created by Documenting the Now.[10] One of the most engaging lab days was spent making glitch art to complement our discussion of file fixity in digital objects. We modified images and audio by opening the files in a text editor and scrambling the content to demonstrate the fragility of digital files.

All of the labs contributed to improving computer and web literacies. Despite their reputation as digital natives, most of the first-year students did not know much about how the web worked. Working with HTML or the command line was an exciting look behind the curtain. Not only did the labs improve specific skills, they helped students become comfortable learning and troubleshooting digital tools.


Students successfully achieved the goals of this course. The primary challenge from the instructor’s point of view was translating professional concepts to a first-year audience. The projects and lab activities were essential in bringing archival principles to life. The opportunity to work with manuscript collections was a highlight for many students and let them experience the realities of archival work. By using the Archive-It platform, students created something that would live beyond them and the bounds of the course. Working with their own topic was both exciting and challenging. It created a strong level of investment, but required explicit training in generating an appropriate research agenda.

Overall, most students easily met the first two learning objectives of learning archival principles and thinking critically about their own digital footprint. Student performance was uneven regarding the more analytical objectives, such as analyzing existing born-digital archives and creating their own collection. Project-based assignments were new to these first-year students, as was the emphasis on process over product. Student evaluations were positive, with most citing the value of learning about an underrepresented field and gaining a new perspective. However, from the instructor perspective, the best method of assessment would be to track the information literacy practices of the students throughout their college career. As the digital humanities curriculum initiative transitions into a digital culture and information minor, hopefully this type of assessment will be possible.


A course centered on archival research, whatever form it may take, is an ideal vehicle for teaching a range of scholarly practices and content areas. It is important for current students to be able to assess and understand the digital content they consume and produce every day. A course on born-digital archives opens the possibilities beyond specific manuscript collections or institutional records to anything on the web. Students held a range of opinions on the trustworthiness of the government and private institutions as preservers of the cultural record, but they all recognized the value in taking ownership of your data and preventing gaps and biases in collections. Their reflections consistently mentioned the importance of community-created and -controlled archives. Hopefully this case study inspires other instructors to make use of born-digital archives in their teaching.


[1] “The Signal,” the Library of Congress’s blog on digital stewardship, cites a Washington Post article (Ashenfelder 2011) as the source for this statistic, but their embedded link results in a 404 for an individual’s blog. Tracking down the Washington Post article in a subscription-based newspaper database indicates that the quote was attributed to Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, though no context or evidence is given.

[2] More information is available at

[3] Archive-It is a subscription-based web archiving service offered by the Internet Archive. The university library sponsored an “Educational Partnership” account for this course. Archive-It works with a variety of partners, including K-12 schools. They can be found at

[4] Available at

[5] Available at

[6] Available at

[7] The course website is hosted on the GitBook platform and synced with the instructor’s GitHub account:

[8] The final projects can be accessed here:

[9] Available at

[10] Documenting the Now is a collaborative effort to build community and tools around social media preservation. It can be accessed at


Ashenfelder, Mike. 2011. “The Average Lifespan of a Webpage” The Signal. November 8, 2011.

Association of College and Research Libraries. 2015. “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” February 9, 2015.

Brügger, Niels, and Ralph Schroeder, eds. 2017. The Web as History: Using Web Archives to Understand the Past and the Present. London: UCL Press.

Bryn Mawr College. n.d. “Digital Competencies” Accessed June 29, 2018.

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, eds. 2012. Digital Humanities. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

LaFrance, Adrienne. 2015. “Raiders of the Lost Web.” The Atlantic, October 14, 2015.

Lepore, Jill. 2015. “What the Web Said Yesterday.” The New Yorker, January 19, 2015.

Notopoulos, Katie. 2017. “Photobucket Is Holding People’s Photos For ‘Ransom.’” BuzzFeed. July 7, 2017.

Owens, Trevor. 2017. The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rumsey, Abby Smith. 2016. When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Shaw, Zed A. n.d. “Appendix A: Command Line Crash Course.” Learn Python the Hard Way. Accessed November 25, 2018.

About the Author

Mackenzie Brooks is Assistant Professor and Digital Humanities Librarian at Washington and Lee University. There, she teaches in the Digital Culture and Information minor and coordinates Digital Humanities initiatives. Her research focuses on digital pedagogy, scholarly text encoding, and metadata.


Teaching the Digital Caribbean: The Ethics of a Public Pedagogical Experiment


In this essay, I discuss my methodology in choosing course content for a “Digital Caribbean” course at the CUNY Graduate Center and some of the challenges, expected and unexpected, that I encountered with my approach. In particular, I focus on some of the ethical and methodological questions I grappled with in melding the study of digital technologies with interdisciplinary study of the Caribbean. Formally a narrative assessment of the ways “not to” build a graduate humanities course that engages digital content, this essay primarily explores what it means to work publicly, in a digital format, with graduate-level research on the Caribbean in academia.

You have to be sure about a position in order to teach a class, but you have to be open-ended enough to know that you are going to change your mind by the time you teach it next week.
— Stuart Hall

In the spring of 2014, I taught a course entitled “The Digital Caribbean” at the CUNY Graduate Center. The course was run by the M.A. in Liberal Studies program (MALS) and cross-listed for the PhD certificates in American Studies and Africana Studies. As far as I could tell in doing my research for the course, it was the first of its kind to be taught at either the graduate or undergraduate level. As such, I found myself cobbling together materials for the course with no precedents or guidelines. This was somewhat easier when I taught the course a year later in the doctoral program in English (again at the CUNY Graduate Center) and then again in Spring 2017 as an undergraduate course at Williams College. In the patchwork essay that follows, I focus on that initial creation for the MALS course, discussing my methodology in choosing content and some of the challenges, expected and unexpected, that I encountered with my approach. In particular, I focus on some of the ethical and methodological questions I grappled with in melding the study of digital technologies with interdisciplinary study of the Caribbean. In part, this is a narrative assessment of the ways “not to” build a graduate humanities course that engages digital content. Mostly, however, it is an exploration of what it means to work publicly with graduate-level research on the Caribbean in academia, particularly with students who have set ideas about their own personal and intellectual relationships to digital technology and to the region.

There were several considerations in both setting up and running the course. Some were foreseeable at the outset, but others part of the learning process of working with living, variable (and often ephemeral) material. In building the initial version of the course, I worked from what at the time was the fifth chapter of a book in progress on Caribbean cosmology. That project has since changed, primarily I believe because of my experience creating and teaching the course. There was a symbiotic relationship such that what was once merely a chapter became pretty much the book. Nevertheless, the former project did shape my approach to the course in that the idea of cosmology (in the most general, universal, sense of the word) helped me to draw together material I was already comfortable teaching – on Caribbean literature and culture – with the Digital Humanities material that was either entirely new to me or new to me in a classroom setting.

Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning the Digital Caribbean

During the course proposal stage, I was not entirely sure what direction the syllabus would take, so, as many of us do at this stage, I left the course description relatively open. The following course description was part of that proposal and appears in slightly abbreviated form on the course website:

Text of course description for Digital Caribbean course

Figure One: Course Description for Digital Caribbean

Much like a presentation abstract months before a conference, the course description above sounded great ahead of time, but in reality I had no template ready for the course. I had not previously appreciated how much I rely on a literary tradition in my pedagogy. In teaching courses like “Caribbean Literature,” “Literary Theory,” and “Women Writers,” I had always had sample syllabi available to me either via the internet or departmental archives. I had also taken similar courses myself as a graduate student. With the digital component, I was charting new ground in Caribbean Studies; and I was teaching in an interdisciplinary program. Thankfully, there was a relatively established body of work on the intersection of race and digital culture by scholars such as Anna Everett and Lisa Nakamura, as well as a newer but also visible and growing body of work on global digital cultures by scholars such as Jennifer Brinkerhoff and Karim H. Karim. However, work that directly addressed digital technology and the Caribbean was much more difficult to find in 2013. Prior to teaching the class, I knew only of very few sources, most notably, Curwen Best’s 2008 monograph, The Politics of Caribbean Cyberculture, articles in the 2011 sx salon discussion “Caribbean Culture Online,” and Annie Paul’s essay in the 2011 Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature, “Log On: Toward Social and Digital Islands.”

Though few and limited to the Anglophone Caribbean, these texts spanned the disciplinary spectrum and so formed a good base from which to begin. My approach to interdisciplinarity has always been to begin with my strength – literature and close reading – and branch out from there. I was also guided by the description of the “second wave” of digital humanities posited in the “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0”:

The first wave of digital humanities work was quantitative, mobilizing the search and retrieval powers of the database, automating corpus linguistics, stacking hypercards into critical arrays. The second wave is qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive, generative in character. It harnesses digital toolkits in the service of the Humanities’ core methodological strengths: attention to complexity, medium specificity, historical context, analytical depth, critique and interpretation.[1]

Though I am sure there are scholars who would argue with the portrayal of the “first wave,” the rest of the description resonated with me because it spoke so directly to what I wished to achieve in the classroom and in whatever scholarship I produced on the topic. This class, this project, was to be generative in nature, for my students, my colleagues, my field, and myself.

But how to pull these varied texts together in a coherent way for these varied audiences? I began with a provisional syllabus that covered only the first three weeks. This decision was motivated by two realities: 1) I simply was not sure what to put in the following weeks as I was still hoping to seamlessly meld Caribbean studies and digital humanities, 2) I wanted to be transparent with my students about the experimental nature of the course and the need for their active participation in generating course content. For various reasons – professional and personal – I was hesitant about this as a pedagogical strategy, but later in the semester some of the students expressed appreciation for this contingent beginning. My openness about the course as an experiment allowed them to feel part of the creation of the course. Throughout the semester the students were comfortable enough to suggest sites, though not readings, for us to analyze. It also helped that I left space in the syllabus for them to do so and designed some of the assignments to require that they find their own examples to illustrate connections between the readings.

At the time, I was unaware of the wealth of research, case studies, and practical advice regarding co-creating course syllabi with students already amassed by scholars steeped in learner-centered pedagogy. The experimental nature of the Digital Caribbean course was not entirely student-centered, but the openness of the syllabus did allow for a foregrounding of some of the students’ interests throughout the semester. In particular, in response to our first class discussion about topics, I scheduled weeks for us to focus on Caribbean tourism online and queer sexualities in Caribbean digital representation(s), topics I had not previously planned to cover. For these especially, but generally throughout the semester, I became a “co-learner” with my students as the course progressed. Much of what I learned from students in this first iteration of the course shaped the next two versions, which were not quite so experimental in syllabus creation.[2]

Our first day was organized around the traditional discussion of the syllabus, texts, and what students hoped to get out of the class; however, I left the second half of class for setting up the course website. We used the CUNY Academic Commons, which is a robust network that offers members not only WordPress-based websites, but also backend privacy for file-sharing and discussion; this helped to avoid the question of copyright with the readings for the course and gave students a space to communicate as a group.[3] We had a lively discussion about what the URL should be for the site as we tried to take into account our current needs, the potential needs of future scholars, and the ways the site might be accessed and for what reasons. The discussion extended to a consideration of what dependencies we had on such tools as search engines, link condensers, and social media. In the end, we decided that though it may be long (so much so that the Commons site creation tool warned us that we would be better off with something shorter), we would choose It was easy to remember and had a distinct clarity of purpose – two qualities important for both current and potential future users.[4]

Platforms and Privacy: The CUNY Academic Commons

The decision that seemed in those early days to be the easiest – that of which platform to use – became in time one of the most troubling. The CUNY Commons has been a model for several organizations’ digital platforms in the near-decade since launching in 2009. Though there are always improvements to be made, the platform is well-developed and the community is welcoming and supportive. I had no doubts about it being the proper home for our course site. However, as the semester wore on, many of the assumptions that led to my choice of this platform – some of them about the very topic we were studying – proved to be short-sighted.

First, there was my assumption about students’ (and by extension other professors’) usage of the CUNY Academic Commons. During that first class I realized that several of the students had not yet set up their Commons accounts, even though this was the Spring semester and so all but one of them had been enrolled at the Graduate Center for at least one semester of classes. This highlighted the assumption I had made about my students’ technological savvy. It would become more clear throughout the rest of the semester that I would need to set aside time for a “practicum” at the end of some classes to cover some of the technical details of using the WordPress-based Commons to complete assignments. Of the eight students, about half had never blogged, even more had never blogged using WordPress, and the CUNY Academic Commons was new to the majority.[5]

As scholars we are inundated with information (and in some cases exhortations) about digital pedagogy and digital scholarship. Regardless of our field and topic, our research is increasingly done via screens rather than via printed material. According to David M. Berry in Understanding Digital Humanities,

Across the university the way in which we pursue research is changing, and digital technology is playing a significant part in that change. Indeed, it is becoming more and more evident that research is increasingly being mediated through digital technology. Many argue that this mediation is slowly beginning to change what it means to undertake research, affecting both the epistemologies and ontologies that underlie a research programme […] it is rare to find an academic today who has had no access to digital technology as part of their research activity.[6]

As such, we can easily make assumptions about not only about our colleagues’ usage of digital technology, but also the digital readiness of our students; we know they use computers to write for us and we observe them (sometimes during class) utilizing their ever-smarter phones. Additionally, advertising and mass media in general would have us believe that everyone is accessing the internet to conduct business and pleasure. But in truth, access does not mean use, and use does not mean full engagement.

This question of engagement, my first hurdle beyond creating a syllabus, was a peculiar reflection of what we were to study in the class. Six of my eight students were of Caribbean descent and the ways in which they used the internet to enhance their understandings of Caribbean culture was repeatedly a topic of discussion across the semester. More relevant for my purposes here, however, is the way in which they did not use the internet. The students’ lack of engagement with the CUNY Academic Commons spoke to their concerns about privacy and the distinction they imagined (or ignored) between their professional and personal digital lives.

Because the field of Caribbean digital studies could, at best, be termed small, one of my objectives was to build a resource for future teachers, students and scholars of similar material, a group that was at that time, and still is, noticeably increasing in number and visibility. This envisioned resource included, in large part, my students’ blogging activity, depending on these posts to convey some of the content of our discussion and the nature of possible connections between the materials. I had once before, as an extra credit exercise, assigned public blogging as part of a course, but that was with undergraduates, and optional. For this course I had, without proper forethought, made public blogging a requirement for students who were more invested in academia than my undergraduates and still had further to go on the track (I had one PhD student and the others were Master’s students, most of whom were planning to apply to doctoral programs). One student was vocally hesitant about blogging publicly, especially since our use of the CUNY Academic Commons meant he could not write pseudonymously.[7] I encouraged him to continue to participate, but I offered the option to delete the blogs after the course, which made him much more comfortable. In later discussions with colleagues I found that many offered the opportunity to blog privately. I could have offered this option, but I wanted the “pressure” of public writing to shape the students’ responses. I also, selfishly, wanted to build the site with curated content.

Despite this choice to stick with my original plan, I was torn about the decision as the unevenness of my students’ writing and abilities became more apparent. Public writing is its own genre and the students approached it in different ways; some with previous blogging experience took to the writing requirement easily, as did others comfortable with writing and/or public performance. The distance between these students and those more hesitant about blogging grew as the course went on. Included in my original course description was the objective to “consider the pedagogical and professional aspects of working with not only digital texts, but specifically those produced to represent a minority culture, particularly given the increasing digitization of academic work.” Somehow, I had not envisioned the work produced in the class itself to be part of this objective, but learned quickly that I needed to treat my students’ work as part of these “digital texts” as well. As Trevor Owens writes of his course site in “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends,” my students’ blogging “was not simply a supplement to the course; rather, it played a cognitive role in the distributed structure of the class, moving it from knowledge consumption to knowledge production.”[8] Their blog posts were producing knowledge not just for our little community in the course, but for a larger (albeit still largely imagined) community beyond the classroom.

On the first day of class we had been optimistic enough to choose a hashtag for sharing our course materials on social media but my concerns about my students’ right to relative privacy kept me from directly linking to their work until the final projects at the end of the semester. The question that repeatedly haunted me was: to what extent are we responsible for shielding our students in this manner? It seems a bit silly to think of myself as “shielding” my students when their work was available on the World Wide Web, but given the relative obscurity of some (even most) web content, it is easy to forget about the public nature of material created for a small group. Could I strike some balance between public encouragement of their work and the traditional private safe space of the classroom? A related concern was that all my students were students of color and I did not know which approach to public writing would most benefit them in an academic system and space ill-designed for their success.  As a compromise, I began to suggest revisions in my reading of their blogs. Though I occasionally commented on their blogs publicly, I also periodically “graded” the blogs privately with comments about each. This resulted in more work but sat well with me ethically as it gave my students the option of going back to revise the blog posts both before and after the “grading.”[9] In retrospect, this was the best approach possible given the varied rationales for the course site: a conversation between the course participants, a contemporary resource for interested readers, and an archive for potential future scholars.

Sooner than expected, I had cause to question the ways in which the course was framed on the site for this latter audience. That summer, after the course had closed, I was contacted by Elena Machado Sáez, who was doing research on Robert Antoni’s As Flies to Whatless Boys. Her project was on reader responses to the text and its accompanying website and in doing research she encountered my students’ posts on the Digital Caribbean site. Antoni was one of our class visitors and so there had been significant activity on the blog surrounding his novel and its experimental website. Because many reviewers were ignoring the website (possibly due to how unusual and “out there” it is), my students’ online conversation represented the largest resource of rigorous engagement with both the novel and its website that a scholar could access at the time. Machado Sáez contacted me about the posts and the site in general. Her email and her subsequent usage of material from the site brought me up short and made me realize the ways in which I had not been careful enough in my creation of the site and contextualization of the course.

The irony here is that our last class was on how search engine optimization (SEO) – via Google in particular – affects one’s exposure to information. Therefore, I should have been more cognizant of how the site appeared to an outsider. But I was, again, operating under myopic assumptions about internet usage. Unfortunately, I did not fully realize this until my students’ work had already made it into Machado Sáez’s book. Her reference to the students’ writings begin: “The digital marginalia accessible via CUNY Academic Commons and produced within a classroom setting indicates the discomfort of readerships with the (im)possible intimacy of Antoni’s online archive, as well as its appeal.”[10] This was footnoted with reference to our email exchange:

Kelly Josephs taught a Spring 2014 graduate course at the CUNY Graduate Center on the “Digital Caribbean,” which produced the blog postings on CUNY Academic Commons (“Introduction”). Since I accessed the blog commentary via Google and the classroom context was not directly acknowledged by the posts, I contacted Josephs via e-mail on June 2, 2014, to see if she knew who had generated the posts. Josephs was kind enough to provide me with her course syllabus and a description of the blog post assignment, but she was unaware that the posts could be disconnected from the course content, or rather, read without accessing the relevant online course description and materials. As she noted, “The CUNY Academic Commons is a large conglomerate and this is just one site within it” (“Re: CUNY Academic Commons,” 2 June 2014). Our academic exchange speaks to how classwork may circulate digitally in ways that we as teachers might not imagine, namely, decontextualized from the pedagogical frame that produced that work.[11]

I quote the note in full here because it speaks to the various ethical, archival, and pedagogical dilemmas I highlight above. Machado Sáez raises a salient point about the circulation of digital material. My disconcertion here is not that the student posts were accessed without context, but that the content of the course could then be “decontextualized from the pedagogical frame that produced that work.” This was in part due to my neglecting to properly “brand” the course and its proliferating content, relying too much on the assumption that readers would navigate their way to the syllabus and the course description. Indeed, we had the public in mind when creating the site – that was in large part the point of our first class discussion about what to name the site and how to frame it – however, the prominence of the “CUNY” branding vis-à-vis the name of the site itself had not been part of that initial discussion (nor had it occurred to me during the course). The potential divorcing of student work from the entirety of the course experience raises for me the following questions:

  • What assumptions do we make about the holistic nature of a course when building a public site to house student work? Do these assumptions really matter to future “use” of the work?
  • What does it do to add the public as an audience for coursework? How does that reflect on content choices? How does this additional component shape assignments and “performance” in the course?
  • How does the choice of platform affect reception of the work? If we rely on platforms provided by our academic institutions, how does the institution continue to own our intellectual labor in ways we did not envision – or ways we do not mean to occur?

Three iterations of the course later, I am still grappling with these questions.[12] Before teaching the course again in 2015, I made small revisions to the course site in an effort to more clearly signal the course context for public readers, but kept the general structure and all the previous student work as part of the archive. For the 2017 undergraduate course I decided to build a new site with a different theme and organization, partly to speak to the distinct needs of my undergraduate students but also in an effort at embracing the ephemerality of a site hosted by an institution within which I was contingent faculty.[13] Rather than answering the questions above, teaching the course again has simply nuanced them, foregrounding for me the ethics of scholarship vs pedagogy, particularly when the Caribbean as subject matter and identity politics in the classroom – engaging underrepresented peoples and places – underlie these questions of ethics and public distribution.

We learn as we teach. As I teach this course, I am learning to err on the side of impermanence whenever my drive to build a site as part of the “product” of the course seems to be in tension with the needs of my students to learn in a private, safe space. I am learning to incorporate space and time for opacity in such ventures; space and time for students to create, and revise, and perhaps even refuse work in ways ultimately invisible behind the screens of outsiders. Impermanence and opacity – these are not easy choices for a Caribbeanist in the age of livestreamed conferences, recorded lectures, and hashtagged events. In the digital age, we want access to everything, archives of everything. As a Caribbean scholar, I also desire to build evidence of the complexities, the very existence, of our cultures; evidence against, as Derek Walcott phrases it: “the way that the Caribbean is still looked at, illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized. ‘No people there,’ to quote Froude, ‘in the true sense of the word.’ No people. Fragments and echoes of real people, unoriginal and broken.”[14] The lure of digital archives is their potential to make such evidence of history, of humanity, accessible in all senses of the word. I am learning to weigh this drive toward visibility against my students’ needs for invisibility, reminding myself each time that impermanence and opacity, difficult as they may be for a digital humanist, are longstanding strategies of resistance in Caribbean cultures.


[1] Jeffrey Schnapp, Todd Presner, and Peter Lunenfeld, “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” Emphasis in original. This citation is limited as according to Presner, “Parts of the manifesto were written by Jeffrey Schnapp, Peter Lunenfeld, and myself, while other parts were written (and critiqued) by commenters on the Commentpress blog and still other parts of the manifesto were written by authors who participated in the seminars. This document has the hand and words of about 100 people in it.” (Todd Presner, “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 Launched” 22 June 2009,, accessed 15 November 2017). Thus, while I note all three authors in the bibliographic record, I wish to also acknowledge that, in keeping with the gestalt of DH work, it is a collaborative document.

[2] For an illustrative discussion of the hows and whys of co-creating syllabi and course assignments with students, see Cathy Davidson’s 2015 HASTAC series “How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom,”

[3] The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy is also part of the CUNY Academic Commons, though the site does not have a Commons URL or the Commons header.

[4] I was already using the simpler URL for another site. It pays to be an early adopter in this field.

[5] The Commons team has since focused some of their resources on orienting new CUNY Graduate Center students to the platform and so both knowledge and usage of the Commons has increased in the past four years.

[6] David M. Berry, ed. Understanding Digital Humanities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 1.

[7] I learned afterward that this is a possibility with the CUNY Academic Commons and have since offered the option to students, though none have yet chosen to blog under a pseudonym. In an unexpected turn of events, the student most hesitant about public blogging in this first version of the course later included his posts as part of his online resume of writings.

[8] Trevor Owens, “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

[9] The course site remains public and as of this writing – as far as I could tell from the dashboard – none of the students have erased their blogs. This may, of course, speak more to their forgetting to remove them than any considered decision about their academic portfolio.

[10] Elena Machado Sáez, Market Aesthetics: The Purchase of the Past in Caribbean Diasporic Fiction (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 207.

[11] Ibid, 228.

[12] The initial course ended with student digital projects (though I gave the option of a traditional paper, six of the eight students chose to build digital projects). The projects were extremely gratifying for me and I felt much more comfortable sharing these projects via social media because the students had “owned” them in a way they had not “owned” the blog posts for the course. What I found most interesting was that each of these projects was built “elsewhere.” That is, none of the students chose the CUNY Academic Commons to house their work. Perhaps they were much more aware of these questions of ownership and reception than I was at the time.

[13] This course was part of my teaching responsibilities as a visiting professor at Williams College. As of this writing, the site is still accessible, but my access to the administration of it will expire when my Williams College email account expires.

[14] Derek Walcott, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory” Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1992.

About the Author

Kelly Baker Josephs is Associate Professor of English at York College, CUNY. She is the author of Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Insanity in Anglophone Caribbean Lit­erature (2013), editor of sx salon: a small axe literary platform, and manager of The Caribbean Commons website. Her current project, “Caribbean Articulations: Storytelling in a Digital Age,” explores the intersections between new technologies and Caribbean cultural production.

Single folio from Codex Zouche-Nuttall showing Lord 8 Deer Jaguar Claw

Doing Digital Art History in a Pre-Columbian Art Survey Class: Creating an Omeka Exhibition Around the Mixtec Codex Zouche-Nuttall


This article describes the development of an Omeka student project in a Pre-Columbian art history survey class that also acquaints students with digital art history (DAH). The course incorporates daily activities intended to help students create a collaborative Omeka exhibition focused on the Mixtec Codex Zouche-Nuttall (CZN). These activities, which include annotating images, creating metadata for images, discussions of image copyrights and fair use, sourcing images, and assessing online resources, introduce some of the important tools, skills, and methodologies of DAH to students largely unfamiliar with the digital humanities. They also prepare students to create an Omeka exhibition framed around the CZN and comparative images. Both the classroom activities and Omeka project help students to think about digital visual culture, non-linear storytelling, and public art history as well as the opportunities afforded by DAH to shape new narratives about the history of art in the ancient Americas.

Many in the humanities—whether they consider themselves digital humanists or not—employ digital technology to engage students within and outside the classroom. One of my colleagues in the English Program at Pepperdine University, where I teach, asks students to create a blog to share reading responses, but considers herself “tech-averse.” She simply uses the blogging platform because she feels it appeals to students who are more familiar with digital environments. Another English colleague asks students to use WordSmith (a textual analysis program that examines word patterns and frequency) to analyze primary source documents located in our Special Collections as part of a process of producing a website on George Pepperdine’s writings; she considers her pedagogical approach as one that bridges machine learning with humanistic inquiry. These two approaches represent a general spectrum of digitally mindful pedagogy, from the digitally inflected to the digitally centered; in this essay, I am more interested in the latter. A vast literature exists on how such digitally centered pedagogy can benefit (or not) students in English, History, Classics, Philosophy, and Information Literacy/Library Studies (or some combination thereof) by helping them to ask discipline-specific questions using digital tools. For instance, Chris Johanson and Elaine Sullivan (2015) have discussed creating a class focused on digital cultural mapping as a way to “develop students’ critical thinking skills and visual sophistication” (123). T. Mills Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age (2013) considers how digital tools and methods encourage students to “produce either new knowledge about the past, or old knowledge presented in new ways.” Kelly also offers guidance and narratives intended to promote reflection on how historians can use digital media in the classroom to “create active learning opportunities.” In other words, he makes suggestions about how historians can embrace digitally inflected technologies to create new methods of historical inquiry (“Introduction”; see also Iantorno 2014, and the various essays within the issue; Mourer 2017; Silva 2016).

Discussions of digitally inflected or digitally centered art history pedagogy are more recent, as are attempts to define digital art history (DAH) and its unique practices.[1] However, a steadily growing literature attests to the interest in such pedagogical strategies, such as the use of data visualization to explore artists’ relationships to one another to reveal gender bias within the field (Ross 2013). What is DAH pedagogy? This question is at the heart of recent discussions, among them an insightful blog entry by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker (founders of Smarthistory) titled “Where is the pedagogy in digital art history?” (2017).[2] Noting that articles focused on DAH pedagogy are often valued less than those focused on research (e.g., Fletcher 2015), they argue that DAH can be used in the classroom and beyond “to ask new questions, model new collaborative working methods, embrace new methodologies, and gain new skills.”[3] Among their recommendations: inform students about the importance of speaking to a broad, public audience; teach them about copyrights, licensing, and fair use; collaborate; and open up the classroom and teaching strategies. In a similar vein, Art Historians Interested in Pedagogy and Technology organized a panel at the 2016 College Art Association meeting that addressed how new technologies have potentially transformed the art history classroom, moving beyond the now deeply ingrained digitized slide lecture. At a time when the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) has become a topic of greater interest among art historians, in part due to the rapid changes in technology that have impacted learning as well as the looming threats to the humanities at large, considerations of pedagogy and DAH seem apt and timely (e.g., Spivey and McGarry 2016).[4]

What these discussions reveal is that DAH pedagogy builds on the broader applications and investigations of DH pedagogy yet differs in several key ways. For instance, DAH pedagogy stresses how visual culture (or “art”) is uniquely suited to ask different types of questions from written texts, revealed in processes like how we create data about imagery that cannot be tagged or annotated using the same methods or tools as that produced for alphabetic texts. Art historians (and our students) are also positioned to think critically about digital visuality and analyze how digital visual environments encode ideas. Discussions about “visuality and the digital,” or simply digital visuality, form an important cornerstone within these considerations about DAH pedagogy. The Nordic Network for Digital Visuality defines digital visuality as “the production and consumption of digitally mediated expressions of selfhood and society through visual and audio-visual interfaces (images, photos, video, TV, etc.).” With all these discussions in mind, how then can we explore digital visuality with students in the art history survey classroom?

This essay describes the development of a joint DAH and Pre-Columbian art survey class that will run in Fall 2017.[5] Specifically, through the semester-long activities and Omeka course project students complete to explore digital visuality, I discuss how DAH can transform the practice of traditional art history and the production of knowledge in this digital age. At Pepperdine, a new digital humanities minor was approved for Fall 2017. One of the first classes to be offered as an elective is my Pre-Columbian art history class, an ambitious survey that explores some of the cultures of what is today Latin America prior to the arrival of Europeans [for an overview, see Appendix A]. Most students enter with little to no background in the subject matter, so it functions as a general survey course. I have taught this class for many years (not at Pepperdine), but never as one that also introduces students specifically to DAH. Knowing that it fulfills the digital humanities minor elective means I have had the opportunity to reconceptualize the class to both introduce some DAH methods and tools and focus on pre-Columbian art and history. What does DAH look like in the survey classroom? More specifically, how do I introduce the methodologies and tools of DAH to undergraduates of all levels in an art history survey class, or even what do I choose to introduce within a single semester? How do I reconfigure a class I typically teach in a slide-style lecture format to incorporate DAH as I have done with some of my other art history classes?

In my Renaissance and Spanish Colonial art history classes, I have found that an effective way of introducing students to some core DAH methods and tools is asking them to produce an Omeka exhibition. The creation of this type of project relates to broader issues in art history and digital humanities, including classifications or labels, digital versus print sources, reading and interpreting images, access, collaboration, and visuality.[6] It also introduces students to “digitization, organization, presentation, exhibition, [and] metadata creation,” as Jeffrey McClurken (2010) notes in his article on teaching with Omeka. Omeka is a content management system (CMS) available on the web that allows users to curate digital archives and exhibitions, providing students with opportunities to think like a curator or archivist. I prefer Omeka to other CMSs, such as Drupal, because it allows my class to create both an archive of items and a narrative exhibition even if students have no programming skills. In addition, I agree with regarding Omeka’s potential to help students gain certain skills transferable to many careers (Roy Rosenzweig Center 2010–2018). In some of the classes in which I have introduced Omeka (or something similar to it), students often felt unease with a DAH project rather than the traditional research paper of approximately 8–10 pages. This unease largely stemmed from their unfamiliarity with using Omeka and presenting art-historical arguments in a non-linear fashion, but it also sometimes resulted from my own missteps: not introducing Omeka early enough in the semester, forming ineffective teams, or not scaffolding activities to help them understand how and why Omeka is an important manner in which to present knowledge.[7]

Learning from these earlier experiences, I decided that in my Pre-Columbian art survey class, students would work in teams to create an Omeka exhibition centered on the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (CZN), a Mixtec (or Ñudzavui) codex dating to ca. 1450 that partly relates to the epic narrative of the hero Lord 8 Deer “Jaguar Claw” (Figure 1). While the specific content of this codex is largely unfamiliar to students, it generally appeals to them because it focuses on genealogical history and an epic hero story—concepts that are familiar in relation to other cultures and eras. Each student will choose one folio from the CZN related to Lord 8 Deer to complete an individual component of the project before choosing a larger theme around which to frame their chosen folios within their teams. Teams will decide on the theme that each member will explore using his or her folio and compare it to a few additional images and objects to expand on the thematic focus. For instance, a team might explore pigments used to color the CZN or how women are depicted. Teams will write a collaborative introduction to their exhibition, but will also write individual pages as part of the exhibition that elaborate on the theme with their chosen folio. The goal of the class is to introduce students to important DAH ideas, skills, and methods such as creating clear metadata, annotating digital images, evaluating digital art history projects, and understanding what content management systems can do. This must be accomplished early in the semester so that they will use this knowledge to construct the Omeka CZN exhibition, creating repeated opportunities “to ask new questions, model new collaborative working methods, embrace new methodologies, and gain new skills,” as Harris and Zucker (2015) urge.

Codex Zouche-Nuttall Open
Figure 1. Codex Zouche-Nuttall (source: Michel Wal, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons).

In earlier iterations of this class, to develop students’ visual literacy skills and historical knowledge, I often assigned students a local museum object from Mesoamerica or the Andes around which they developed a project. The first component of this more traditional project was a formal analysis paper (approximately 2–3 pages) that asked students to study the object in person and analyze its composition, lines, color, texture, and shapes. They then researched a broader topic (such as gender, mythology, or rulership) with this object as their primary focus. Until I became more interested in DAH as a scholar and teacher in 2013, these assignments were the cornerstones of my classroom. Since early 2014, I have continued to transform my pedagogy and course assignments for several of my classes, but have not yet had the opportunity to do so for my Pre-Columbian course. Given my success with creating Omeka exhibitions in other classes—although none that fulfilled any major or minor requirement in DH—I will make this project and the requisite skills and tools needed to construct it a key thread for my new pre-Columbian art course. While I am replacing the traditional formal analysis/research paper model, the Omeka project still asks students to look closely at images and to interpret them asking new types of questions.

In my experience, students are often intrigued but overwhelmed learning about Mesoamerican pictorial codices, including the CZN. The very idea that the codex has no written text, only visual imagery to tell a story, can present a real challenge, as can the non-linear visual storytelling. Apart from the Maya, Mesoamerican peoples did not have fully developed writing systems akin to our own system of writing. However, complex forms of visual writing are found throughout Mesoamerican history. The Mixtec are but one group who produced complex pictographic codices that relayed genealogies and dynastic histories, calendrical information, or ritualistic details.[8] By their very nature, the codices are read differently than a book with written text, and anyone unfamiliar with the visual signs or pictographic symbols will find these codices challenging and possibly impenetrable. This is also true when the manner (or style) in which the imagery appears is unfamiliar to most students. They have to develop new visual literacy skills and become more familiar with Mesoamerican sign systems to decode what they see. Feedback from student evaluations and in-class discussions suggests that students enjoy learning about Mixtec codices because once they know how to read them they recognize how similar they are to more contemporary visual storytelling modes, such as comic books.

DAH—and Omeka in particular—provides a new way of engaging with the CZN that allows my class to broach a variety of topics: collaboration, writing without words in Mesoamerica, storytelling within the codex and in digital formats, metadata and classification, and engaging with a public audience (not just the professor). It also presents an opportunity for students to think in a non-linear fashion about how to present their ideas, arguments, and evidence using a CMS like Omeka, in the process becoming more aware of DAH and digital visuality in general. The non-linear construction of Omeka also mimics, to some degree, the non-linear pictorial writing of the CZN.

Introducing DAH in a Pre-Columbian Art History Survey Class

Before describing the Omeka project in greater detail, I will outline some of the activities students will complete during class time to introduce them to DAH methods and tools—those that they will need to complete their project. Because some students will take other DH classes to fulfill the minor requirement, I want this class to highlight what makes DAH potentially different from DH. I have selected a few methods and tools that build on one another and allow students to learn about pre-Columbian art and DAH simultaneously. They include image analysis and annotation, locating and analyzing online resources, creating metadata, collaboration, understanding fair use and image copyright permissions, and finding ways to engage with a broader audience (“public art history”). All of these tools and methods we will initially explore together in class, either with me introducing them or as a team activity related to the day’s material. The opportunity to use the classroom as a lab for experimentation permits students to gain some level of mastery over the skills and tools they will be expected to use in their final Omeka project.

Collaboration will be stressed from the beginning of the semester. On the first day of class students will be arranged into permanent teams; to hold them accountable to their team, students will provide peer evaluations at the midterm and end of the semester, both of which factor into their final grade.[9] All students at Pepperdine have access to Google Apps, providing an easy way for teams to collaborate and organize their assignments and research. Each team will create a folder in Google Drive that is accessible to all of the team members and me. Any assignment they complete as an individual or team will be located here. To familiarize students with the collaborative writing process, I will also ask them to create a document in their folder labeled “lecture notes” that the team can use simultaneously during lecture to produce one set of cohesive notes to help them review material. For students unfamiliar with this process, it can be disorienting, so we will brainstorm ways to organize the notes or divide the work fairly between team members. I have used crowd-sourced lecture notes in my large lecture humanities class (200+ students) with great success, and I imagine similar success in this smaller class of 20. Also on day one, a collaborative icebreaker activity will act as an entry point to the topic of pre-Columbian art and its significance as a field of study. Each team will complete a poll/scavenger hunt that includes locating a definition and map of Mesoamerica and an image of the Maya calendar, tagging a few images that I provide and listing associations they have with certain terms, including “Aztec,” “Inka,” “Moche,” and “Pre-Columbian.” This activity will allow teams to bond while adjusting to working collaboratively as well as raise important issues about perceptions or misperceptions of pre-Columbian cultures, art, and history.

On the second day of class (or during the first full lecture), each student will receive the same black-and-white photocopied image showing the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice in the early colonial Codex Magliabechiano (fol. 70) (Figure 2). They will be asked to annotate it (with a pen) in any manner they see fit, using information from the previous night’s reading (e.g., Boone 1980, 1–5; Taube 1993, 18–30) about the validity of using early colonial ethno-historical manuscripts and codices to understand pre-Columbian cultures.[10] Having done this exercise in the past, I know that student-generated annotations range from pure formal description (e.g., a heart, a person, a knife) to cultural biases about Aztec sacrifice (e.g., murderous peoples, bloodlust). After students share and describe their annotations, we will discuss what these annotations exclude—in other words, how does the very act of annotating an image potentially skew an individual’s engagement with what is displayed?

Cropped image of Aztec Heart Sacrifice on temple platform from sixteenth-century Codex Magliabechiano 70r
Figure 2. Folio 70r of the Codex Magliabechiano, 16th century. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The same image will then be displayed on the screen using Thinglink, a tool that allows digital annotation (or tagging) of images. My annotated Codex Magliabechiano image will include links to other sources, maps, and videos to demonstrate for students the possibilities afforded by this manner of framing images. Students are asked to compare this manner of annotating images with the paper version they completed. This activity motivates students to look closely as well as think about how annotations affect our reception and interpretation of images on paper or in the digital environment. It also allows us to address the issue of the physical context of the image, cropped and disassociated from the manuscript’s other images and text—in other words, the process of decontextualization that occurs when images are printed in books or placed on the web. This is especially important to consider in the digital environment, and the ways in which we can work to provide better contextualization.

Students are often unprepared or unfamiliar with how to assess digital resources, which is a crucial skill as more students turn to information online. In a following lecture, each team will assess information online about a topic with which they now have some familiarity: Aztec human sacrifice. The sources include webpages like Wikipedia’s entry and Each team will receive a rubric [Appendix B] to use in assessing the resource. The critical reading activity opens a conversation about how we know what we know about Aztec sacrificial rituals—a topic that receives a disproportionate amount of attention in the past and present, not all of it valuable or accurate. Assessing digital resources permits students to think about knowledge and information, digital sources, and digital narratives (visual and textual). It also raises the importance of accountability, especially when publishing material accessible to the general public via a web search. This activity prepares students for the research they will complete about the CZN, and for which they will be asked to draw on print and digital sources.

Introducing students to metadata early in the semester is important because for their Omeka project they will need to input metadata for each item as it relates to the Dublin Core (used by Omeka). Initial conversations with students about metadata often reveal their unfamiliarity with the concept, even if in practice they do know something about it. In a few class periods, we consider metadata specifically: What is it? How is it created? How is it used? Why does it matter?[11] “A Gentle Introduction to Metadata” by Jeff Good (2002) serves as the launching point for our discussion about creating metadata for objects and images versus written texts. Students today are familiar with tagging, especially on social media, which serves as a useful starting point for creating metadata. After our initial discussion, and during a lecture on Aztec art, I will project for students the famous Coyolxauhqui monolith and ask them to create metadata, specifically as it relates to the Dublin Core. They will complete this activity in a team Google Doc so they can see the metadata generated by other students—and how this might differ greatly from their own choices. Time pending, I will also introduce students to the Getty’s Cultural Objects Name Authority® Online, or CONA (still in development), which provides metadata about visual culture specifically. In other classes where I have used Omeka, one of the biggest hurdles for students has been learning the language of Dublin Core. My intention with this assignment is to introduce it before students even begin to interact with Omeka so they develop familiarity with metadata and how to create it.

For the Omeka site, students will also need to locate images that have a Creative Commons license or are not protected by certain copyrights. To prepare them for this need, in a lecture about the Aztecs, students will complete a team scavenger hunt, an activity adapted from the 2014 DAH institute “Rebuilding the Portfolio.”[12] The scavenger hunt includes finding three copyright-free images from the Templo Mayor, finding an object from the Templo Mayor in a U.S. museum, locating a high quality image of an object associated with the Templo Mayor, and sourcing a video about some aspect of the Aztecs that seems accurate. This activity provides a low-stakes opportunity for them to think about where to find images or multimedia content for their Omeka exhibition. It also begins a longer conversation about who owns images and objects, why copyrights exist, and the need to identify how best to use copyrighted materials. Students will be introduced, for instance, to the College Art Association’s “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts.” Students rarely consider fair use or image copyrights, but it is important information for them to have in our digital era.

While none of these activities focuses on the CZN or Omeka specifically, each one introduces students to key aspects of the project from the class’s beginning. Scaffolding these low-stakes activities helps students digest new tools and skills before learning about Omeka and the CZN in more detail. My goal is to help students feel more confident about using Omeka because they will recognize the similarities with earlier activities completed during class. They will also understand that experimenting with a new tool or skill does not always mean mastery of it, and that struggling or even “failing” is an important part of the learning experience.

The Codex Zouche-Nuttall Project

Up to this point, students have not engaged explicitly with the Codex Zouche-Nutall. Over the next several lectures, they will have the opportunity to use DAH methods and tools in relation to Mixtec codices, helping them begin to think about their project in greater detail. Prior to the first class on Mixtec codices, students will receive a folio from the CZN (e.g., Figure 3) that they will narrate in written form and read to the class. Students will certainly have some creative readings because they have no deep familiarity with the CZN. This activity is intended to spark their visual interest in the CZN and to demonstrate the complexity of putting pictographic writing into words. It is a basic activity that embodies the post-structuralist notion of the incommensurability of language and images (or even vision), summed up by the philosopher-historian Michel Foucault (1973, 9): “the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation. It is not that words are imperfect, or that, when confronted by the visible, they prove insuperably inadequate. Neither can be reduced to the other’s terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.”

Once students have shared their written narratives, we will discuss how to “read” and understand the complex imagery in the CZN. A main resource is John Pohl’s detailed discussion of the CZN available on FAMSI, or the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies Institute. With the folio projected on the screen, students will begin to read day and year signs, place signs, the people displayed, specific gestures, and other visual signs after engaging with some of these resources. I will also provide them with another annotated image on Thinglink for future reference (in addition to a Google Doc that includes useful information). Students will then break into their teams and browse through the CZN to select their individual folios and begin brainstorming the team theme for their Omeka project. They will record their ideas on a Google Doc as well as paste images of their chosen folios into the same document for the team’s easy reference. At this point, they will begin to conduct research on the CZN, and more specifically their chosen theme. A librarian will visit one class to discuss available resources on campus and beyond (e.g., Interlibrary Loan, online resources, databases, local resources like UCLA and the Getty) as well as to discuss information literacy more broadly.

Single folio from Codex Zouche-Nuttall showing Lord 8 Deer Jaguar Claw
Figure 3. Codex Zouche-Nuttall folio. By Anonymous (British Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

An entire day is devoted to a tour and overview of Omeka, with us working through two posts from The Programming Historian (“Up and running with” [Posner 2016] and “Creating an Omeka Exhibit” [Posner and Brett 2016]). After introducing them to Omeka specifically, they will have the opportunity to upload their chosen folio as an item. At this point, students are aware that Omeka uses the Dublin Core metadata element for its records. Earlier class conversations and activities about metadata will help students recognize how Omeka is structured to create an item. Students will be prompted to add their chosen folio from the CZN to Omeka as an item, allowing them to practice inputting metadata using Dublin Core. Omeka also allows for specific Item Type Metadata, adding files (like images), and tags. Adding this one item is the first step on Omeka toward completing their larger team exhibition.

Paired with the earlier exercises, the creation of the Omeka items encourages students to think further about how images and objects are categorized, including the potential challenges and problems that arise in the process of categorization. This issue of categorization is one I often wrestle with in teaching and practicing art history, and one that many of my courses and research address. In my Renaissance art class, for instance, we often return to the question of what falls under the category of “Renaissance” and why. What chronological or geographical boundaries do we use to describe something as “Renaissance art”? Does a sixteenth-century colonial Mexican featherwork modeled on a Flemish print belong to the Renaissance? What stylistic label(s) do we use to describe something as “Renaissance,” and is it even important that we do so? Why is an Italian maniera artist like Bernardo Bitti, who moved to colonial Peru, often excluded from discussions of the reach of the Italian Renaissance outside of those focused on colonial Latin America? Inputting this one folio image from the CZN into Omeka, students are further exposed to the challenges that art historians face, and the subjectivity that arises when ascribing labels to artworks—or anything for that matter. This stage of the project not only helps students to look more closely at one single folio but also presses them to think about the potential impact digital resources can have on our understanding of a single image.

Students will be given the freedom to explore their team theme in any way they see fit, provided they locate comparative images and complete documented research to support their ideas. Once teams have developed a thematic focus for their larger exhibition, each individual student will decide how to analyze their chosen folio with this theme in mind. Students will be asked to find comparative images, objects, or architecture that connects to their folio and theme. For instance, one team might decide to focus on places depicted in the CZN, with each individual team member then focusing on a place depicted in a single folio. One student might realize the images associated with Tilantongo (Ñuu Tnoo) appear similar to architectural frieze remains of Mitla that we discussed. She could decide to include a photograph of the palace of Mitla as an item to Omeka and develop this comparison in her individual exhibition page. Another student in the same team might have an interest in topography of the Oaxaca region of Mexico and find photographs of some of the large, prominent hills (like Black Hill, or Yucu Tnoo) that are sometimes associated with specific places in the CZN. Yet another student might show interest in mapping, deciding to compare the representation of places in a specific folio of the CZN with another Mesoamerican codex that shows the same place or perhaps a different manner of mapping geography. This comparative component asks students to place the imagery and narrative of the CZN in a broader context, thereby making connections to other material discussed in class.

The exhibition is where teams will be able to offer more analytic discussions and ideas about specific items, guiding anyone who visits the site through a curated narrative. Teams will write an introduction (approximately 250–400 words) about their theme in a Google Doc initially before adding it to their exhibition’s first page. In other words, this introduction helps to connect each of their individual items and pages that expand on the items. For their individual pages (approximately 800–1200 words, including notes), the narrative is both textual and visual, pairing their CZN folio with their comparative images as well as the student’s research on and interpretation of the theme. Each student will be asked to link to an annotated Thinglink image of their chosen folio. In addition, similar to the earlier Templo Mayor scavenger hunt, students will need to locate high quality images in the public domain for their comparative images. A specific Google Doc in their team folder will include this information, and any necessary links, to ensure they are working with images that can be publicly posted on their Omeka site.

The ultimate goal is to produce a dynamic exhibition that emphasizes the complexity of the pictorial narrative in the CZN and its relationship to broader visual and material realms in Mesoamerica. Moreover, the final product is intended to demonstrate for students how users can successfully navigate through a non-linear narrative about the CZN—not unlike the process of “reading” the CZN itself. Unlike the traditional research paper, this project encourages students to think about creating an argument both visually and textually in a digital environment. They will have to consider how navigating their narrative online via a screen is different from reading a typed paper, and the different creative and analytic choices that are involved in this form of knowledge production.[13]

The Impact of DAH on the Practice of Art History In and Out of the Classroom

Ideally, each team will create beautiful, well-thought-out, detailed exhibitions. In my experience, however, having students create Omeka exhibitions can be messy, complicated, and frustrating for them. This is because the assignment not only requires them to use a new platform with which they are unfamiliar but also demands that they see the responsibility placed on them: the metadata they create, including tags, affects how people find their images or even understand them. Similarly, the exhibition they create—the images they select, how they interpret them, what they choose to include or exclude, how they discuss their research for a public audience—forms a new narrative similar to other digital resources they are familiar with navigating, but about which they may never have thought about critically.

Yet here is the catch: I see the messy or less cohesive Omeka exhibition as a success, provided students recognize the complexity of digital visuality, information available on the web, and the responsibility they have interpreting the CZN on a public CMS like Omeka. There is inherent value in making mistakes or recognizing where there is need for improvement. If students become anxious that there are errors in information on the website, then we can discuss how we can alter or address them (now or in a future semester). This process also highlights the ongoing nature of historical research, that it is not some finite, clear, linear “thing” that exists in a vacuum—in other words, the process highlights the notion that history is produced, not simply recovered. Furthermore, students learn that the classification systems used by art historians are not objective, and they often find this idea illuminating yet unsettling. It disrupts what they are often taught earlier in their education, but I believe that this process of slow dismantling of preconceived notions is useful, thoughtful, and integral to their development as thinkers. Finally, showcasing student work in a public digital environment demonstrates to the students the responsibility we have as historians to share our research and ideas with people in general, not just other academics.

The Omeka projects I have assigned (and will assign) also provide students with other important skills and ideas, most notably collaborating with peers, being able to communicate with a wide audience, and thinking about how digital images tell stories, all of which are important within any work environment today. As with all collaborative projects, some individuals will find the process frustrating, associating it with the dreaded “group work.” Yet if conflicts arise, they will be coached on how to resolve them in a professional manner, a useful skill on the job market as well. They will also quickly grasp how collaboration allows for a richer, more complex, expansive project that would be impossible to plan and construct as a lone individual—in other words, the potential of crowd-sourcing data and interpretations to revolutionize knowledge production. Even in more traditional art history classes that do not use DAH tools or methodologies, students can use the skills and approaches they have developed to engage with visual culture more deeply. Lastly, students will recognize the power of digital images to construct new narratives and to alter perceptions depending on how this imagery is framed. In the digital world in which we live, students spend a great deal of their time on various social media platforms and encounter digital images in increasingly high numbers. Yet they do not often spend time reflecting on the constructed nature of these digital visual environments. I hope that they will leave the class realizing the significant impact the digital can have on the practice of art history using non-traditional methods and tools, and on the very ways we produce visual and textual knowledge.


[1] Digital art history, like the broader digital humanities, is challenging to define. Recent attempts by Johanna Drucker (2013), Pamela Fletcher (2015), Murtha Baca and Anne Helmreich (2017), Diana Zorich (2012), and others highlight what a thorny term it is. Fletcher notes that “Defining digital art history and its relationship to the larger fields of digital humanities and art history is . . . a collaborative work in progress.” I prefer to keep the term as broad as possible, so perhaps it is summed up as the use of new media technologies and computational methods to study and practice art history. For more on what DAH is or how we might define it, see Baca and Helmreich’s special issue on DAH for Visual Resources (2013) as well as Drucker, Helmreich, Matthew Lincoln, and Francesca Rose’s essay on DAH and the American scene (2017).

[2] Smarthistory offers a dynamic resource for students, scholars, and the general public to learn about the history of art. I disclose here that I am a board member, content editor, and author for Smarthistory.

[3] Fletcher, for instance, offers an insightful overview of digital art history research methods and practices, but does not discuss the SoTL or pedagogy (2015). There are also clearer methods of evaluating digital scholarship, but little has been published or discussed about methods of evaluating digital art history pedagogy. For the former, see Fisher 2016. For more on pedagogy and the digital humanities more generally, see Brier 2012.

[4] Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR) is an example of greater interest in art history pedagogy resources, with the AHTR weekly journal sometimes addressing specifically digital art history pedagogy concerns. Art History Pedagogy and Practice (AHPP) is affiliated with AHTR.

[5] This essay was written prior to the Fall 2017 semester.

[6] Omeka has three main categories to curate: items, collections, and exhibitions. Items are created and then arranged into collections. Exhibitions are formed around items paired with text and possibly even other visualizations (such as maps).

[7] For a wonderful essay discussing some of the challenges of using Omeka in the classroom, see Allred 2017. For more on students’ possible resistance to new technologies introduced in the classroom, see Keramidas 2012.

[8] For more on the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, see Williams 2013 and the general introduction and tutorial resources on

[9] This strategy is one related to Team-Based Learning (TBL). See Ball and Kilroy-Ewbank 2014; and Kilroy-Ewbank 2014.

[10] Students will also read short excerpts from several of these ethno-historic sources during class.

[11] For a thoughtful discussion of the importance of introducing students to why metadata matters, see Colburn 2017.

[12] I was a participant of this institute, hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and sponsored by the Getty Foundation.

[13] For more on pedagogy, exhibitions, digital media, and interactive design, see Keramidas and Sharratt 2013.


Allred, Jeffrey. 2017. “A Professor Goes Overboard with Omeka and DH Box.” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Teaching Fails, March 13. Accessed May 2, 2017.

Baca, Murtha, and Anne Helmreich. 2013. “Introduction.” Visual Resources 29, nos. 1–2 (March–June): 1–4.

———. 2017. “Introducing Three Digital Art History Case Studies.” The Getty Iris, February 15.

Ball, Jennifer, and Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank. 2014. “Team-based Learning for Art Historians.” Art History Teaching Resources. Accessed April 17, 2017.

Boone, Elizabeth. 1980. “How Efficient Are Early Colonial Manuscripts as Iconographic Tools?” Research Center for the Arts Review 2: 1–5.

Brier, Stephen. 2012. “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Accessed April 18, 2017.

Colburn, Alston. 2016. “Spreading Awareness of Digital Preservation and Copyright via Omeka-based Projects.” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Assignments, March 28. Accessed April 29, 2017.

Drucker, Johanna. 2013. “Is There a ‘Digital’ Art History?” Visual Resources, special issue on Digital Art History, edited by Murtha Baca and Anne Helmreich, 29, nos. 1–2 (Spring): 5–13.

Drucker, Johanna, Anne Helmreich, Matthew Lincoln, and Francesca Rose. 2015. “Digital Art History: The American Scene.” Perspective 2, December 7. Accessed October 18, 2017.

Fisher, Michelle Millar. 2016. “Case Studies and Examples for Evaluating Digital Scholarship.” CAA News Today, February 23. Accessed April 30, 2017.

Fletcher, Pamela. 2015. “Reflections on Digital Art History.”, June 18. Accessed April 15, 2017. doi: 10.3202/

Foucault, Michel. 1973. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences. New York: Vintage. OCLC 234203336.

Good, Jeff. 2002. “A Gentle Introduction to Metadata.” Accessed April 17, 2017.

Harris, Beth, and Steven Zucker. 2015. “Where is the pedagogy in digital art history?” Smarthistory Blog, July 13. Accessed 20 April 2017.

Iantorno, Luke A. 2014. “Introducing Digital Humanities Pedagogy.” CEA Critic 76, no. 2 (July): 140–146.

Johanson, Chris, and Elaine Sullivan, with Janice Reiff, Diane Favro, Todd Presner, and Willeke Wendrich. 2012. “Teaching Digital Humanities through Digital Cultural Mapping.” In Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics, edited by Brett D. Hirsch, 121–150. Open Books Publishers.

Kelly, T. Mills. 2013. Teaching History in the Digital Age, Digital Humanities Series. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Keramidas, Kimon. 2012. “WikiFAIL: Students and the Orthodoxy of Practice in the Classroom.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Teaching Fails, May 7. Accessed May 2, 2017.

Keramidas, Kimon, and Nicola Sharratt. 2013. “Weaving Stories Between the Material, Immaterial and Ephemeral: Designing Digital Interactives for Socially Complex Objects in an exhibition Setting.” Mediacommons, The New Everyday, September 29. Accessed May 5, 2017.

Kilroy-Ewbank, Lauren. 2014. “Team-Based Learning in Art History: Pros and Cons.” Accessed April 17, 2017.

McClurken, Jeffrey W. 2010. “Teaching with Omeka.” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 9. Accessed April 20, 2017.

Mourer, Marissa. 2017. “A Subject Librarian’s Pedagogical Path in the Digital Humanities.” College and Undergraduate Libraries: 1–15.

Nordic Network for Digital Visuality (NNDV). [2014?] Accessed April 17, 2017.

Posner, Miriam. 2016. “Up and Running with” The Programming Historian. February 17. Last modified August 6, 2017.

Posner, Miriam and Megan R. Brett. 2016. “Creating an Omeka Exhibit.” The Programming Historian. February 24. Last modified May 25, 2017.

Ross, Nancy. 2013. “Teaching Twentieth Century Art History with Gender and Data Visualizations.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Issue 4, December. Accessed October 12, 2017.

Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. [2017?] “Omeka.” Accessed April 17, 2017.

Silva, Andie. 2016. “Digital Literacies and Visual Rhetoric: Scaffolding a Meme-Based Assignment Sequence for Introductory Composition Classes.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Assignments, December 19. Accessed October 10, 2017.

Spivey, Virginia B., and Renee McGarry. 2016. “Editor’s Introduction: Advancing SoTL-AH.” Art History Pedagogy and Practice 1, no. 1. Accessed February 28, 2017.

Taube, Karl. 1993. Aztec and Maya Myths. Austin: University of Texas Press. OCLC 693779222.

Williams, Robert Lloyd. 2013. The Complete Codex Zouche-Nuttall: Mixtec Lineage Histories and Political Biographies. Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies. Austin: University of Texas Press. OCLC 811591352.

Zorich, Diane M. 2012. “Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship.” A Report to The Samuel H. Kress Foundation and The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University. May.

Appendix A: Brief Overview of Pre-Columbian Survey for Fall 2017

The idea to teach the class like an archaeological dig (in other words, backwards, beginning with the cultures we know most about that are closest to us in time) was borrowed and adapted from Dr. Cecelia F. Klein, Professor Emerita of Pre-Columbian Art History at UCLA.


Basic class info: The class meets for 110 minutes twice a week. It is capped at 20 students. There is no designated computer lab for the class, so students will bring their own laptops to complete activities.


Week 1: Introduction, General Cultural Overviews, the Spanish Conquests and the Problems with Using Mesoamerican Ethno-historical (Early Colonial) Sources


  • Formation of Teams and Google Drive folders
  • Introduction to Crowdsourcing
  • Icebreaker/scavenger hunt activity on Pre-Columbian Art
  • Aztec human sacrifice annotation activity
  • Introduction of Thinglink


Week 2: Origins of the Aztecs and Their Capital City, Tenochtitlan


  • Evaluation of online sources (example: websites on Aztec human sacrifice)


Week 3: The Aztec Templo Mayor and Imperial Ideologies


  • Introduction to Metadata
  • Creating metadata for the Coyolxauhqui monolith
  • Templo Mayor scavenger hunt and discussion of copyrights and fair use


Week 4: The Post-Classic International Style and the Epiclassic; introduction to Omeka; trip to the Getty Center to View “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas,” on view 16 Sep 2017–28 January 2018.


  • Introduction to the Codex Zouche-Nuttall
  • Introduction to Omeka
  • Creating metadata for single folio of the CZN


Week 5: Teotihuacan; Maya Divine Kingship


  • Teotihuacan scavenger hunt and second discussion of copyrights and fair use
  • Thinglink Image Annotation exercise with Stela 16 at Tikal


Week 6: Maya Courtly Arts; the Olmecs


  • Creating metadata for a Maya painted vessel
  • Creating of crowd-sourced study guide


Week 7: Midterm; Problems with Using Andean Ethno-historical (early colonial) Sources



Week 8: Origins of the Inka and Their Capital City, Cusco; Inka Stonework and Textiles


  • Thinglink Image Annotation exercise with Inka Textile/Stonework
  • Librarian Visits Classroom


Week 9: Tiwanaku and Chimu; the Moche; Trip to LACMA to view Ancient Americas Collection


  • Scavenger Hunt at LACMA
  • Project Planning/Creation


Week 10: Moche Cont.; Paracas and Nazca.


  • Creating metadata for a Moche portrait vessel
  • Revisiting Omeka in the Classroom


Week 11: Chavín; Indigenous Peoples After the Spanish Conquests


  • Project Planning/Creation
  • Revisiting Omeka in the Classroom


Week 12: Pre-Columbian Cultures in Modern Times


  • Creating of crowd-sourced study guide


Week 13: Work on Omeka Project


  • Work on Omeka Project in class with team and individually


Week 14: Presentations


  • Team and individual presentations

Appendix B. Rubric for Assessing the Usefulness and Validity of Online Sources


Dr. L. Kilroy-Ewbank


Adapted from several online sources, including;
3 2 1
What is the purpose of the site? To inform and educate its audience. Bias free. To persuade the audience to think a certain way. Reveals a bias. To sell a product or idea for the author’s personal gain.
Who is the author? Author’s name is easy to locate. Author is clearly an authority on the subject (i.e. his or her credentials are sufficient). Author’s name is there, but s/he may or may not be an authority on the subject. Unclear credentials. Unknown author.
What organization is it affiliated with (if any)? A well-known respectable organization (e.g., NEH) is clearly identified as a sponsor of the site. Sponsoring organization identifiable, but its association or reputation with topic is questionable/unclear. No sponsoring organization identified.
Who is the intended audience of the site? Clearly scholars or experts in a specific field (e.g., pre-Columbian archaeology, Renaissance art history). Appears to be the general public, ranging from experts to novices. Unclear who the intended audience is.
Is the website factual? Many facts provided. Website free from opinions or bias. Appears to be factual, but the author’s opinions are frequently revealed. Seems potentially propagandistic. Facts are questionable, based mostly on the author’s opinions. Explicitly propagandistic.
Is the evidence clearly cited, and drawn from a variety of sources? Are captions provided for images, with source information? Evidence is clearly cited, and draws from both primary and secondary sources (or a mixture of relevant sources). Clear where most information came from. The sources are from credible places (reputable journals, libraries, digital platforms). Direct links to original information/sources. Images are captioned, with their source identifiable. Evidence is somewhat clear, and the author draws from variety of sources. The sources seem to be from credible places, but it is not entirely clear. Does not provide direct links to original information/sources. Images have captions, but it is not clear what their source is. Evidence is unclear, and the sources are unclear, if cited at all. No explanation or identification of the sources of evidence. Images have no clear captions of sources.
How would you describe the writing style and organization of the site? Written with clarity and simplicity. Organized effectively. Uses professional language. No advertisements. Written mostly with clarity and simplicity. Organization is effective in most areas. 1-2 advertisements. Writing style is embarrassing, with many errors. Many typos. Haphazard organization. Lots of advertisements.
When was it created? Is it current? Date of creation included.

Current Event: updated within the last month.

Historical Topic: updated within the last year.

Date of creation maybe included.

Current Event: updated 1–6 months ago.

Historical Topic: updated 1–2 years ago.

No date is shown or information is outdated.

Current Event: more than 6 months old.

Historical Topic: more than 2 years old.


21–24 pts: Excellent source for your project. 16–20 pts: Good source for your project, but might need further verification with other sources (in print). 11–15 pts: OK source that could help you generate ideas, but not good enough to cite for your project or to use as a reputable source. 0–10 pts: Questionable source, do not use for your project.

First and foremost, I would like to thank my students over the years who have offered valuable feedback on either my Pre-Columbian art history class or my use of and experimentation with digital art history tools and methods. Special thanks are also offered to Jennifer Smith, Kristen Chiem, Lisa Boutin, and Elena Fitzpatrick Sifford, all of whom read and commented on drafts of this article.

About the Author

Lauren G. Kilroy-Ewbank is an Associate Professor of Art History at Pepperdine University. She teaches a wide range of subjects, including Pre-Columbian, Latin American, Medieval, Early Modern, and Native American art history. Her research focuses on devotional imagery and portraiture in the Spanish Americas, digital art history pedagogy, and successful strategies for teaching large-lecture courses. She is also a contributing editor for Mesoamerican, Spanish Colonial, and Native American art and board member for

Screenshot of Gallatin ePortfolio template, displaying the main navigational elements and the homepage welcome message.

ePortfolios and Individualized, Interdisciplinary Learning: A Case Study


Individualized, interdisciplinary degree programs carry a unique set of challenges and opportunities that can be addressed by ePortfolios. This is especially true for New York University’s (NYU) Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where students must construct their own academic concentrations while taking courses in most of the seventeen schools that comprise the University. In this article, we describe an ongoing project to explore the use of ePortfolios as a means to create coherence for students across courses and semesters, and to help them articulate an intellectual and professional agenda through synthesis and reflection. The project spans three distinct iterations of ePortfolios, and describes how lessons learned from two of the previous iterations helped guide faculty and staff in the development and implementation of a new ePortfolio template, which is currently being piloted. We explore how an overly wrought first iteration led to an excessively focused second version, and finally, a third iteration, that may be just right.

Introduction: The Origins of a Gallatin ePortfolio

The Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University (Gallatin) offers a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in individualized study. The ePortfolio project focuses on the BA program. Students at Gallatin develop their own programs of study by combining Gallatin’s core curriculum of small, interdisciplinary seminars and workshops with courses in other NYU schools. Additionally, students pursue independent studies (one­-on­-one projects with faculty), tutorials (small group projects), private lessons, and internships. This course of study culminates in a final oral exam, called the colloquium, in which students demonstrate their knowledge about a select number of significant texts.

With just over 1,600 undergraduate students and approximately 150 graduate students, Gallatin is a relatively small school housed within a large research university. Being an individualized study major in a small school that is part of a very large university, on a distributed urban and global campus, can be an isolating experience. Because of this, Gallatin has used active, focused faculty advising as a cornerstone of its curriculum from the very first formative years as a program in 1972, and then as a division in 1976. But in 1976, Gallatin had only 200 students (London 1992, 7). By 2008, with a much larger student body, there was agreement among faculty members that students could benefit from a platform that encouraged reflection and collaboration.

This paper outlines three distinct ePortfolio platforms the school developed in an attempt to facilitate this student need for reflection and collaboration. The first was a shared, multi­-university initiative to build out the promising Sakai OAE (Open Academic Environment) into an academic­-social-networking system with ePortfolios as a main component. The second was based entirely on Google Drive, and centered around the collection of course assets. And the final, still ongoing, platform is built around WordPress, which attempts to account for the limitations of the the first two.

During the Fall of 2009, several factors led to the consideration of an ePortfolio for Gallatin students: social media; advancements in ePortfolio and learning management system (LMS) software; digitally native content; and the expansion of the arts and experiential learning at Gallatin. Moreover, many students were coming upon their culminating experience, the colloquium, underprepared, specifically in the integration of coursework spanning their entire academic career. Students, now accustomed to platforms like Facebook and Google Docs, were wondering why there was not an academic corollary.

During a focus group with students concerning the enhancement of the school’s LMS, several ePortfolio-­related themes emerged. Where students used to be satisfied focusing on their individual concentrations and learning goals, they were now interested in community. Several students at the Fall 2009 LMS focus group asked for a way to find other students with similar academic interests. Additionally, participants mentioned how they would like to share their academic work across courses, in ways that would surface meaningful connections between students. These students’ comments were aligned with the research on ePortfolios. Bryant and Chittum (2013, 189­197) note that successful ePortfolios enable students to share and collaborate on work spanning their entire program. This finding is consistent with trends in ePortfolio use at the time, where less course-­ and program­-based, and more collaborative ePortfolios were gaining in popularity (Brown, Chen, and Gordon 2012, 129-­138).

This focus group conversation became one about effective ePortfolios. The students recognized the need for a tool to capture, synthesize, and share their academic careers, a way to “utilize Facebook[-like]…prefab micro-­sites…So that people could upload different documents” (personal communication). Several students advocated for a platform that encourages self­-assessment and peer assessment, foundational elements of good ePortfolio design (Wade, Abrami, and Sclater 2005, under “Student Self­-regulation”).

The author, Likos, in conversation with the faculty, was also coming to a similar conclusion: a tool was needed that could help scaffold the development of the individualized concentration; encourage the synthesis of experiential, performative and academic learning; and allow for the communication and articulation of the students’ work. Hayward et al. explain how ePortfolios can help achieve just these goals, emphasizing the tool’s ability to help integrate different modes of learning (2008, 140–­159). Additionally, the ePortfolio is specifically valuable in interdisciplinary studies. Field and Stowe explain that the “the longitudinal nature of the process,” which provides explication of an entire learning journey, “can be used effectively to validate the interdisciplinary process and to communicate the process to internal, and external audiences” (2002, 268).

As a result of our student focus group, faculty discussion, and research on ePortfolios, a specific articulation of the requirements for a Gallatin ePortfolio platform emerged:

  1. The system must allow for text­-based and digitally native content.
  2. Assets must be flexibly shareable—to students in a course, the school, the University, and the outside world.
  3. Assets must be taggable in a manner that encourages searching, browsing, filtering, and sorting.
  4. The ePortfolio must evolve from a student’s first year through their life after college.
  5. The platform must allow for the creation of attractive public-facing websites.

A landscape survey of existing software at the time found that none could satisfy all of these criteria. Most ePortfolio platforms were still focused on assessment (Clark and Eynon 2009, 18­–23), which was not the core requirement of a Gallatin ePortfolio. With this in mind, we broadened our search beyond specific ePortfolio software to platforms that could act more as a development toolkit. This led to Gallatin’s, and later NYU’s, significant engagement with Sakai.

Sakai OAE and ATLAS: A Grand Vision Leads to Loss of Focus

Just as the benefits of an a ePortfolio system were becoming clear to the Gallatin community, so too were these benefits being recognized by another department at the University, the Liberal Studies Program. Confronted with similar requirements, an ePortfolio project was initiated in 2008 with the help of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Digital Humanities Start-­Up Grant (Apert 2011). Like Gallatin, the Liberal Studies Program was aiming for a system that would support content authoring, management and tagging, private­ and public-facing ePortfolios, and academic networking. Gallatin was thus a natural partner, and joined the initiative in 2008. By 2009, Liberal Studies and Gallatin were joined by 8 additional NYU entities.[1]

With this infusion of interest and capital, a new ambition grew, and a new, more robust platform was needed to meet these ambitions. Liberal Studies, already using Sakai CLE (Collaboration and Learning Environment) for the first iteration of its ePortfolio, recognized the potential of the then nascent Sakai OAE (Open Academic Environment). The promise of OAE was a user­-, group­-, and content-­centered system. As Apert explains, Sakai OAE “uses the…concept of groups to replace the more rigid structure of sites in traditional learning management systems (LMS)….In Sakai OAE…tools are ‘widgetized,’ meaning they exist as free-­floating modules that can be pulled into any page” (2011). This is in contrast to Sakai CLE, and most LMSs at the time, which were built with the course at the core.

After several months of collaboration, a working group of faculty and staff members representing the ten schools and departments committed to this project were so enthusiastic about the promise of a user- ­and content-­centered academic networking platform, that by mid­-2010 NYU had become the most significant partner in a multi-university alliance to build the next generation LMS (Hill 2012). Along with Cambridge University, the University of California, Berkeley, Indiana University, Georgia State University, and Charles Sturt University, NYU shared a seat on the Sakai OAE steering committee, and NYU’s Chief Digital Officer, David Ackerman, was appointed to the position of Sakai Board Chair.

But by the end of 2010, this was already something very different than the ePortfolio project on which Gallatin had first partnered with NYU’s Liberal Studies Program. The Gallatin ePortfolio had very specific requirements around content and sharing, which though part of the roadmap for Sakai 3, would now have to share space with all of the traditional functions of an LMS. With Sakai CLE representing five percent of the higher­-education LMS market at this time, legacy tool support and development was no small matter (Green 2013, 23). As a member of the NYU Sakai 3 working group, Likos had to collaborate with representatives from nine other schools and departments at NYU to set priorities that would then compete with those from the six other Sakai steering committee member universities. Predictably, this produced a very large set of requirements.

By Spring 2011, nearly two years after the first discussions about ePortfolios for Gallatin students occurred, the first beta iteration of NYU’s version of Sakai 3, ATLAS (Advanced Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship) network, was running. Though our initial plan was to help undergraduates synthesize and share their concentrations, we decided our first pilot would be with graduate students for two reasons. First, this initial iteration of ATLAS had severe performance and feature shortcomings. It simply could not handle more than dozens of users at a time, and many of the features supporting content creation, tagging, and sharing were not yet built. The second reason was that our graduate students were beginning to ask for a simplified platform for finding each other. That is, they were happy to have an enhanced directory of students that could be filtered according to academic interest. Given the limitations of ATLAS, it made more sense to pilot a more condensed feature set to a smaller group of 150 students. While supporting this pilot for graduate students, we continued to push for development of features that would turn this into a true ePortfolio for our BA students.

By Spring 2012, with the 1.1 version of ATLAS released, we were not significantly closer. The platform was now more capable of handling larger numbers of users, the content authoring interface was better, but it was not an ePortfolio. The centrifugal force of multiple schools’ and universities’ competing requirements and features continually pulled at the center until there was barely a center at all. In the end, it was neither a fully functional LMS or an ePortfolio. This, combined with the emergence of Google Apps for Education and the Universities’ adoption of it, and new LMSs like Canvas and D2L, spelled the end for ATLAS and the larger Sakai OAE project. By the Spring of 2012, all of the remaining large university funding partners left the project, and NYU soon followed suit, officially sun­-setting the pilot on January 22, 2013.

In its final iteration, Gallatin’s version of ATLAS included academic profile information for 150 graduate students, as well as a tag cloud (see Figure 1) to help visualize the weight of academic interest areas. It contained no other ePortfolio assets, though technically, it could have. Our assessment of the platform was that it failed in at least some way in each of the five categories of requirements initially laid out. The most successful feature was the academic interest tag cloud, and if extended to content, as originally envisioned, it could have been a valuable way for students to share and collaborate.

Screenshot of Atlas tag cloud for Gallatin MA students, showing the top 20 tags, with Cultural Studies heavily weighted in the center.

Figure 1: ATLAS tag cloud.

There are many lessons to be learned from Gallatin’s Sakai OEA/ATLAS journey, foremost of which is that Gallatin handed over its agency in developing an ePortfolio platform in the hope of being part of something that would be much more. The project grew so large, so quickly, that the competing requirements of multiple universities and schools became increasingly difficult to manage and fund. Another takeaway was that the mass of the “academic social networking” feature set was so great that it pulled almost all the development and pedagogical energy into its gravity well. The promise of a “Facebook for the academy” was so alluring that we shifted too much attention from the core elements of a successful student ePortfolio.

Google Drive: Familiarity without Scalability

It was from this place that a re-conceived ePortfolio platform was born. In the spring of 2013, a reconfigured Gallatin steering committee was assembled to review the failures of the ATLAS project and to recommend a new way forward. One of the first issues we uncovered was that ATLAS privileged technology over good pedagogical design. We hoped the technology would allow for robust connections among students without specific prescriptions, as was the case in other social networks. The idea was that students would upload any assets they thought relevant to their concentrations, and the metadata would do the magic of surfacing the relevant, connected information. This proved to be technically very difficult, and not clear at all to the student participants. Additionally, Gallatin had prescriptions that could and should be applied to ePortfolios:

  • Course documents: syllabi, papers, readings.
  • The booklist and rationale: documents prepared in advance of the colloquium that contain 20 to 25 texts that cover multiple disciplines and historical periods related to the student concentration, and a five­- to eight-­page essay that articulates the central themes that are represented by the booklist.
  • The Intellectual Autobiography and Plan for Concentration (IAPC): a two-­ to three-­page essay, completed at the end of a student’s sophomore year, in which students reflect on their educational progress and describe their areas of interest.
  • Plans of Study: forms filled out every semester outlining the students’ registration plans for the following semester, and how these relate to their individualized course of study.

Starting from these assets, the committee recognized an opportunity to focus the scope of a project that had become so large with ATLAS to a simpler set of requirements. This new conception asked, what is the easiest and most stable system that students can use to store and share their course and concentration documents? Taking this together with the original prerequisites from 2009, and the lessons learned from ATLAS, an updated requirement set asked that:

  1. The system allows for text-­based, as well as multimedia content.
  2. All assets be shareable to faculty, advisers, other students, and the public.
  3. Assets in the ePortfolio be accessible to students after they graduate.
  4. The platform already be built, stable, technically vetted, and inexpensive.

Taking these into account, it was a very easy decision to pilot a new ePortfolio project with Google Drive. NYU’s investment in Google Apps for Education was increasing, and a University­-led ePortfolio landscape survey indicated that Google Drive was a viable ePortfolio alternative for simple projects. Additionally, it was a familiar product, with a support and training structure in place. In terms of storage and performance, we already knew that it could handle thousands of students and assets, and we knew those assets could be securely shared with individuals and groups using existing NYU credentials. Furthermore, there was no direct cost to Gallatin. The platform and the central support was free, and students would keep their Google accounts, including their ePortfolios, after graduation. With the benefits of a Google Drive ePortfolio clear, and the cost to adoption low, it was decided that a new pilot would launch in the Fall of 2013. Gallatin would pre-­populate the following folders and documents in all students’ drives:

  • Courses
    • Syllabi
    • Papers
    • Readings
  • Brainstorming
    • Bibliography (citations of key texts)
    • “Concentration” document (notes from adviser meetings, thoughts on classes, ideas about one’s concentration)
    • Plans of Study (saved copies of the Plan of Study forms)

With both the ATLAS and the Google pilots, the steering committee considered making the ePortfolio mandatory, but both times it was decided that the administrative burden on faculty was too great. With ATLAS, the ePortfolio component was not well defined, and the system not robust enough. The Google Drive ePortfolio was well defined, and the system was robust enough, but if we were going to utilize course registration holds—or use some other constraint—it meant either the faculty advisers or some other academic staff would need to review and approve ePortfolios. It was felt that Gallatin did not at the time have the resources to incent, train, and support the faculty and staff to perform this task well. Instead, beginning in the Spring of 2013, we undertook a marketing and training campaign. This included presentations at faculty meetings, online video demonstrations, and orientation training sessions for students.

The technical administration of the ePortfolios was fairly simple, but not straightforward. Because the University’s implementation of Google Apps could not ingest school and class directory information, there was no way to automate the group creation of the “Gallatin ePortfolio,” or easily generate unique ePortfolio URLs. This all required additional manual work.

In early Fall 2013, the first set of student ePortfolios were provisioned. These included all 269 Gallatin first­-year students. An email from the dean was sent to these students with a link to their ePortfolios and instructions on how to use them. Simultaneously, messaging went out to faculty encouraging them to remind students about the ePortfolio. The same basic structure for the ePortfolios remained in place through the Fall 2014 semester, but by the third semester of the pilot we had added sophomores and juniors.

From the student perspective, the system worked well. Students that chose to create an ePortfolio reported no issues creating and storing content. There was also very little student training required. But by the second semester, the University began to have trouble provisioning the accounts and setting permissions. The Google Apps administrators had to do this with a series of scripts, and there was concern that any change Google made to the product, which was not uncommon, could break the scripts. Additionally, it was at this time that we realized there were little to no options for getting data from the system. Even something as simple as getting a count of how many students were placing content into their ePortfolios was only possible by manually, visually checking each student’s ePortfolio folder. In the end, we used a randomly generated number set to choose a statistically significant sample of ePortfolios to manually check for content. By the final pilot semester, Fall 2014, only 1.9% of students had placed any content into their ePortfolios.

In summation, the Google Drive ePortfolio platform failed in several areas. Most compelling was the modest adoption rate, but the difficulty in extracting metrics from the system, and increasing difficulty provisioning accounts and permissions were also important. For these reasons, it was decided that Fall 2014 would mark the end of this pilot. Though there were technical limitations, it was the adoption rate that had the most impact in our final assessment. In discussions with students and faculty, it became clear that this pilot offered little in the way of incentive or injunction. Their use rate was very low in part because there was no appealing public-­facing aspect of the ePortfolios, but even more significantly because of the way the ePortfolios were presented and taught. It had been decided to market the ePortfolio to students and faculty, instead of train faculty to actively engage with students around the ePortfolio in their courses; we now see that decision as a mistake. These two key issues we hoped to address in the next pilot.

WordPress: Re­-centering on Reflection

Taking into account the lessons learned from our ATLAS and Google Drive experiences, we are now in the midst of our third iteration of ePortfolios at Gallatin, this time using NYU’s WordPress installation, Web Publishing, which launched in August of 2014. Like Google Drive, Web Publishing comes with NYU IT support and training, provides adequate storage for our multimedia needs, is integrated with our user-­authentication system, and is a no-­cost, portable platform. Unlike Google Drive, however, Web Publishing enables us to create a template tailored to the needs of our students, so that we are now able to easily deploy sites as needed. More important than the authentication and storage benefits, however, is the built-­in reflective space Web Publishing offers, as well as the ability to create visually appealing, customizable, public-­facing websites with granular control over visibility. Our hope is that the personalization achieved through reflective blog posts and customization features will give students a strong sense of ownership over their ePortfolios, thereby incentivizing adoption rates.

With a renewed focus on reflection, the committee has decided to diverge from the structure adapted for Google Drive, which functioned primarily as a repository of work. Our new template thus contains areas for four main types of reflective content: the “about me” bio page, the course descriptions and expectations blog, the end-of-semester reflections, and an annotated bibliography (see Figure 2).

Screenshot of Gallatin ePortfolio template, displaying the main navigational elements and the homepage welcome message.

Figure 2: The Gallatin ePortfolio template.

In addition to these pre­-packaged content areas, students are encouraged to customize their ePortfolios in order to document all of their Gallatin­-related experiences, including internships, study-­abroad, and extracurricular activities, thereby creating a comprehensive repository that gives viewers both a general sense of the breadth and scope of a student’s intellectual trajectory, and the ability to drill down into the details of a particular term, course, or activity.

Participating faculty are being asked to integrate several activities into their courses that are designed to both kick­start student engagement with their ePortfolios, and to encourage students to begin thinking metacognitively about themselves as learners. Advisers are participating in the pilot by asking their advisees to see their ePortfolios. We believe that active involvement on the part of faculty and advisers will be a critical component to the success of the program.

On the first day of class, faculty ask their students to write a short bio for the About Me page. Not only is the ability to write a compelling bio a skill that will benefit students personally and professionally, it is also an exercise in narrating selfhood that should always precede engagement with digital identities, of which ePortfolios are a part. Moreover, sharing and discussing bios in a classroom environment promotes the development of learning communities that are so important to students’ mental health and wellness, and so critical to long-­term academic success. Early in the semester, students are also asked to write a blog post containing the course descriptions for each class they take, accompanied by their expectations for these courses. By doing so, students will not only create a chronological record of the courses they take, they will be setting up personal learning goals that will help sustain their focus throughout the semester. These initial reflective posts are then connected to the reflections they are asked to write on the last day of class. In their “end­-of-­semester reflections,” students are asked to compare what they had expected to learn with what they actually learned, and to make a list of key texts from the semester. The blog is a space to assist students in reflecting on their learning as they develop over the course of each term, and to help suggest a direction for the coming term. Such reflections will allow students to document the evolution of their intellectual pathways, to make connections, and to generate questions for future research and for their advisers.

These reflections will act as a pre-­writing activity, providing material for the IAPC, the booklist/rationale, and the colloquium, all of which require students to articulate their research interests and to identify thematic correspondence between the various areas of study. This, ultimately, is at the core of what we are trying to achieve: to help our students connect the dots. As the “school of individualized study,” Gallatin requires its students to design their own curriculum, in conjunction with an adviser. This self-­directed learning model empowers students to actively engage in the development of their own education, and allows them to take a wide variety of courses, both at Gallatin and at other NYU schools (and beyond). But this learning model also comes with unique challenges. Because students are exploring many different subject areas, it is often difficult for them to articulate the connections and/or tensions between them. Milestone requirements, such as the IAPC due at the end of sophomore year, and the booklist/rationale required before the final senior colloquium, have been put in place as scaffolding, preparing students for the kind of scholarly synthesis that will be expected of them during their final oral examination. Yet these milestones are themselves rigorous requirements that will also, we believe, benefit from the kind of sustained reflection built into the design of our ePortfolios. The designated Annotated Bibliography page, for instance, is something students can build up over time, and can eventually become a direct precursor to the booklist and rationale.

Taken as a whole, the design of our ePortfolio template works to engage students in an ongoing reflective process that can best be described as active, inquiry-­based learning. As Wozniak writes, “Reflection connects the components of the inquiry cycle and serves as the catalyst to move to the next level of learning and discovery. Information is transformed to knowledge and fragmented pieces of knowledge are connected through reflection” (2012, 221). Used as an advising tool, Gallatin’s ePortfolio provides a collaborative space in which to make those connections. By incrementally archiving, curating, and reflecting upon their coursework, students will essentially be self-­scaffolding their learning, progressively building toward a stronger understanding of their own concentration. Wozniak also notes that reflection promotes integrative learning, a pedagogical approach in which students apply “multiple areas of knowledge and multiple modes of inquiry” (2012, 210) to real-­world situations: “These learning experiences consider the whole student and foster lifelong learning skills. They engage students in making their own learning connections between their courses, professional career goals, co­-curricular activities, campus involvement, community service, job experiences, and personal interests” (2012, 210). An integrative learning approach that considers the whole student is foundational to the mission at Gallatin, making a reflective ePortfolio system a natural addition to our program.

In order to ensure the successful implementation of an ePortfolio program that would be both meaningful for students and helpful to their advisers, we opted for an incremental, three-­phase roll out plan:

3-Phase Implementation Plan
Phase Phase Title Duration Dates Primary Purpose
1 Targeted Pilot One Semester 12/2015 to 5/2016
  • Assess the usability of the WordPress template
  • Obtain student feedback
2 Extended Pilot Two Years 9/2016 to 5/2018
  • Assess the adoption rate by students and advisors
  • Evaluate the success of the pedagogical goals of the program
3 Gallatin­Wide Implementation Indefinite 9/2018 +
  • Implement a successful school­wide ePortfolio program

We have completed Phase 1, the Targeted Pilot, which included eight students hand­-selected by their advisers. Our initial assessment of the Targeted Pilot is based on attendance, anecdotal feedback, questionnaire results (see Appendix), and completion rates. Although attendance at our group meetings was low, students responded positively to both the platform and the program. Our students had varying degrees of technological skills, yet all of them felt that WordPress was easy to learn and has long­-term value. Participants responded favorably to the template’s design. Most of the students commented that the information architecture was intuitive, and several participants confirmed that the ePortfolio should be a space for highly curated materials, rather than a repository for all content, which may be best suited for Google Drive.

In terms of the ePortfolio program itself, the belief that a school­-wide digital portfolio service would be valuable to Gallatin students was unanimous. Our primary purpose was to equip students with a tool with which to reflect on their progress, map out the next steps in their plan of study, and build towards future milestones. And to that end, the pilot succeeded. Not only did students report that an ePortfolio would have helped them complete specific milestones, they also expressed the belief that communication with their advisers would be improved. The surprising discovery was that students are increasingly expected to include ePortfolios in their application materials for graduate schools, internships, and other professional opportunities. This anecdotal information is confirmed in a study by Fowler (2012), who notes that an ePortfolio provides a better demonstration of student learning and skills than a standard resume because it represents a range of work, contextualized over time, and because it can be customized for multiple audiences. Our students likewise saw an opportunity either to use their Gallatin ePortfolio for such applications, or to become familiar with the process in order to create a separate ePortfolio.

Based on our assessment of the Targeted Pilot, we have entered Phase 2 of our implementation plan, which will run from September 2016 to May 2018. Our Extended Pilot currently includes our entire incoming first­-year cohort, as well as 31 transfer students, for a total of 328 students and 19 faculty. Our ultimate goal is to seamlessly integrate ePortfolios into Gallatin’s curriculum, such that the incoming class of 2016 and all successive cohorts will view their ePortfolios as a dynamic, evolving, and natural component of the individualized and life­-long learning goals at the core of Gallatin’s philosophy.


There have been vast cultural and technological developments since our first discussions about ePortfolios in 2009, including advancements in open­-source technology, broader use of website building platforms, and shifting boundaries between social media and other web-authoring sites. These developments, in conjunction with an increasingly technologically sophisticated and visually literate student population, build an even stronger case for the implementation of ePortfolios at Gallatin. Having learned much over seven years of exploration, experimentation, and investment in ePortfolios, we have refocused our energy on the individualized philosophy at the core of Gallatin, prioritizing user experience over technical sophistication; focused, purposeful design over broad, generalized application; and, most importantly, pedagogy over technology. The emphasis on curation over archive and reflection over assessment promotes the kind of inquiry­-based, integrative learning that is aligned with Gallatin’s mission, and that comprise the most promising pedagogical aspects of ePortfolios. Although early in our third ePortfolio iteration at Gallatin, we are encouraged by the enthusiasm with which our pilot participants received their customizable digital showcases, and hopeful that by the time our incoming class of 2016 becomes our graduating class of 2020, ePortfolios will have become a part of the fabric of Gallatin life.


[1] The College of Nursing, the Faculty of Arts and Science, NYU Abu Dhabi, NYU Wagner, the NYU School of Medicine, NYU Steinhardt, NYU Information Technology Services, and the NYU Libraries (Apert 2011).


Apert, Lucy. 2011. “The ATLAS Network Pilot: NYU’s Sakai Open Academic Environment Initiative.” NYU Connect: Information Technology at NYU.

Brown, Gary, Helen L. Chen, and Aifong Gordon. 2012. “The Annual AAEEBL Survey at Two: Looking Back and Looking Ahead.” International Journal of ePortfolio 2 (2): 129­38.

Bryant, Lauren H., and Jessica R. Chittum. 2013. “ePortfolio Effectiveness: A(n Ill­fated) Search for Empirical Support.” International Journal of ePortfolio 3 (2): 189­98.

Clark, Elizabeth J., and Bret Eynon. 2009. “E­-portfolios at 2.0—Surveying the Field.” Peer Review: Emerging Trends and Key Debates in Undergraduate Education 11 (1): 18­23.

“Fall 2009 NYU Gallatin LMS Focus Group.” 2009. Interview by author.

Field, Michael, and Donald Stowe. 2002. “Transforming Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning through Assessment.” In Innovations in Interdisciplinary Teaching American Council on Higher Education, edited by Carolyn Haynes, 256­274. Connecticut: Oryx Press.

Fowler, Matthew. 2012. “Developing a Template for Electronic Portfolios in Career and Technical Education.” PhD diss., The University of Nebraska–Lincoln. ProQuest/UMI (3503365).

Hayward, Lorna M., Betsey Blackmer, Alicia Canali, Rosemarie Dimarco, Alicia Russell, Susan Aman, Jessica Rossi, and Lucia Sloane. (2008). “Reflective electronic portfolios: A design process for integrating liberal and professional studies and experiential education.” Journal of Allied Health 37 (3), 140­159.

Hill, Phil. 2012. “Now UC Berkeley and Charles Sturt University Leave Sakai OAE.” e-­Literate.

London, Herbert I. 1992. “A Gallatin Chronology.” The Gallatin Review 11 (1): 7.

Green, Kenneth C. 2013. “The National Survey of Computing and Information Technology.”

Wade, Anne, Philip C. Abrami, and Jennifer Sclater. 2005. “An Electronic Portfolio to Support Learning.” Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology 31 (3).

Wozniak, Nancy McCoy. 2012. “Enhancing Inquiry, Evidence­-Based Reflection, and Integrative Learning with the Lifelong ePortfolio Process: The Implementation of Integrative ePortfolios at Stony Brook University.” Journal of Educational Technology Systems 41 (3): 209­30. doi:10.2190/ET.41.3.b. EBSCO (ATT 88230618).


In response to prompt, “Please check off all areas of the ePortfolio that you worked on,” 83% checked homepage, about me, and courses pages.
In response to a question about how much time students spent on their ePortfolios, 83% indicated 2 to 5 hours.

In response to the question, “Did you feel as though the time spent was useful,” 67% checked “yes.”

In response to the question, “Was it difficult for you to develop your ePortfolio,” 83% checked “no.”

Students elaborate on answers to Q4, citing platform limitations, prior experience with WordPress, and time investment as considerations.

In response to a question about barriers to engagement, 100% said “lack of time,” while “unfamiliarity with WordPress” and lack of interest/motivation were also cited.

In response to a question about how to increase engagement, students cited deadlines, mandates, starting early, and making it more professional.

In response to the question, “Did you use the resources at­eportfolios/,” 83% indicated “yes.”

In response to the question, “Do you think the portfolio should be mandatory for all students,” 33% said “yes,” 17% said “no,” and 50% said “other.”

Additional comments: other systems for saving work, ePortfolios should be mandatory, and favorable thoughts about the design.

About the Authors

Nick Likos is NYU Gallatin School’s Chief Information Officer. He is responsible for the oversight of technology, operations, and compliance. Likos’ career has spanned fifteen years as a leader in for­-profit and nonprofit management, focusing on the efficient use of educational technologies. Likos’ most recent work has been in the academic social networking sphere, developing strategies and systems for integrating pedagogical and social technologies. His research interests include experiential mediation, interface, actor network theory and boundary theory.

Jenny Kijowski is NYU Gallatin’s Educational Technologist. She is responsible for facilitating the development of pedagogically driven, technology­-enhanced teaching practices in the classroom and beyond. She previously taught English Literature, Creative Writing, and Composition courses at BMCC and Queens College, and received her doctorate in English from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research examines war, trauma, gender, and technology.



Image of brown rods on a white background.

Disability as Insight into Social Justice Pedagogy in Technical Communication

Jared S. Colton, Utah State University
Rebecca Walton, Utah State University


Incorporating social justice concerns into the communication design classroom can be difficult. Based upon a pedagogical study, this article proposes that considerations of disability can provide insight into the relevance of social justice to technical communication practice. Engaging with notions of disability enables students to recognize the existence of privilege. This recognition better enables students to talk about what they might consider less comfortable facets of privilege (race, gender, class)—facets many of them have been taught to reject outright or view as an agenda in contradiction to their own personal value systems. Disability is not readily associated with any particular political position and thus can pave the way for consideration of other social justice topics.



As the theme of social justice gains more traction in technical communication scholarship, instructors are trying to invent ways to incorporate ideas of social justice into their classrooms. Still, the relevance of social justice to technical communication is not readily apparent to everyone, perhaps least of all to students. To address this problem, this article proposes one strategy in which considerations of disability can provide insight into broader notions of social justice in the communication design classroom. The context for the research we present is a shift in the curriculum at our university to more centrally incorporate issues of social justice. To inform this curricular revision, we designed a pedagogical study (IRB approval #6070) to help better understand how to bring social justice pedagogy into the technical communication classroom. The broader overall study investigated three undergraduate course designs being piloted in the 2014-2015 academic year and involved multiple methods to collect data at various times throughout and immediately after the fall and spring semesters. This article homes in on one of those three courses (a course on rhetoric, digital media, and disability studies) to investigate the promise of disability studies for initiating students to the relevance of social justice to technical communication. Our findings demonstrate that facilitating students’ awareness of disability can serve as an entry point for helping students recognize the relevance of social justice to the work of communication design.

Technical Communication and Social Justice

Although the term “social justice” is only recently gaining prominence in technical communication scholarship (see Agboka 2013; Haas 2012; Leydens 2012; Walton and Jones 2013), the field has long been concerned with inclusivity and unjust power disparities, producing a sizable body of relevant scholarship. Social justice research in technical communication has been defined as “investigat[ing] how communication broadly defined can amplify the agency of oppressed people—those who are materially, socially, politically, and/or economically under-resourced” (Jones and Walton forthcoming). This research aligns with early technical communication scholarship positioning the field as humanistic (Miller 1979) and with scholarship from a critical-cultural turn, which began explicitly acknowledging concerns of power, hegemony, voice, culture, and diversity as relevant to the field (see Scott and Longo’s 2006 special issue of Technical Communication Quarterly and Herndl’s 2004 special issue of Journal of Business and Technical Communication). Extending this earlier work, social justice research moves beyond description and analysis to take action against oppression.

“Social action” is the term used by Rude (2009) to identify one of four major categories of technical communication research. This research takes a variety of forms: for example, service learning, in which students apply their developing expertise to support community and nonprofit organizations (e.g., Scott 2008; Youngblood and Mackiewicz 2013); community-based research, in which scholars partner with nonacademic communities to pursue issues of mutual interest for social good (e.g., Faber 2002; Walton, Zraly, and Mugengana 2015); action/activist research, which requires that nonacademic communities benefit from the knowledge produced and actions facilitated by research (e.g., Clark 2004; Grabill 2000); and civic engagement, which aims to improve public understanding of issues relevant to people’s lives (e.g., Bowdon 2004; Moore 2013). These forms are not always distinct but often overlap: service learning and civic engagement (e.g., Scott 2004), civic engagement and action research (e.g., Blythe, Grabill, and Riley 2008), action research and service learning (e.g., Crabtree and Sapp 2005).

Under the broader umbrella of social justice research, we characterize our project as service learning and action research. We provided students opportunities to practice their new skills to produce knowledge and facilitate action that benefits communities—specifically, people with disabilities in the Cache Valley area of Northern Utah. It was our aim that in so doing, students develop an ethical framework in the sense of a neo-Aristotelian virtue. While ethics is conceptualized and practiced in a variety of ways (e.g., duty, rights, care, utility), Aristotle considered ethics a systematic study of the character of good action. For Aristotle, ethics was not a scientific problem or a heuristic readily applied to any situation but rather a pursuit that was a reward unto itself. In other words, doing “the right thing” because it is “the right thing,” not because an action yields more favorable results or is simply an assigned responsibility. One of the key terms in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (2011) is “virtue,” which characterizes a person’s being rather than a particular act. In this framework one would not view a person as virtuous based upon one inclusive act or a statement such as “I believe in equality”; rather, a virtuous person’s ethical practices would appear to others as part of his or her character—not as instinct but as an element of a carefully cultivated disposition. This sense of ethics—as day-to-day practice, as beliefs enacted, repeated and continually improved upon—is where we see technical communication and social justice converge.

We admit that looking to Aristotle for a contemporary concern and concept of social justice may seem strange or antiquated to some, as Aristotle likely would not have recognized people with disabilities as citizens, and Aristotle’s moral virtues are those of citizens enlisted in political activity. Also, Aristotle’s virtue ethics are often thought of as individual virtues. How then, does drawing upon such a notion of ethics benefit technical communicators looking to engage in social justice? To the first point, contemporary virtue ethicists such as Garver (2006), MacIntyre (2007), and Vallor (2010) each have demonstrated that such repellent embarrassments (of racism, sexism, and able-ism) found in Aristotle’s writings are unethical to a contemporary neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics framework and that some of Aristotle’s absurd comments on ethical and unethical action (such as the notion that it is more virtuous for a city to open its gates to an enemy so that the battle is fair) are not constitutive of the theory of virtue itself. This theory of virtue in its simplest form is the idea that being good and doing good are intertwined. In other words, for Aristotle, virtues “that promote the agent’s self-realization” and “those that promote the good of others” are not separate (Garver 2006 p.5).

Ironically, the second concern, that virtue ethics are individualistic (which, of course, is not the same as individualism), is actually why virtue ethics are so helpful to technical communicators. Unlike contemporary theories of justice found in liberalism (Rawls 1971) and libertarianism (Nozick 2013), in which it is not the individual citizens who are able to enact social justice but only the state and its institutions (a position many students reinforced when first discussing social justice), a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics sees justice as a learned disposition of one who does what is just situationally with respect to community values and who distributes good equitably in those contexts (trans. 2011 V.9). Rather than a framework that views enactments of social justice as occurring only when institutional mechanisms are adjusted by those in power—in which the most an individual can do is lobby for an injustice to be rectified—a virtue ethics framework considers justice a mode of being that is manifest through continual practice. This shift enables technical communication students to imagine practicing social justice even if they do not work for a non-profit organization or some other entity specifically organized around concerns of social justice.

Course Design

Listed as a topics course for technical communication majors, the focus was on rhetoric, digital media, and disability studies. In framing the course, Colton asked the students on the first day of class, in the spirit of Roman rhetorician Quintilian, “Is a good document designer also an ethical and just document designer?” The course learning objectives centered on enabling students to see all design practices as having an ethical component, an insight that would allow them to see their work as having effect on social justice. This latter concern was a significant challenge, as most if not all of the students had considered technical communication and social justice to be unrelated.

Required texts included Meloncon’s collection Rhetorical Accessability (2013a), Williams’s The Non-Designers Presentation Book (2010), and Davis’s The Disability Studies Reader (2013a). Rhetorical Accessability was key to bridging the gap between a basic presentation design book (Williams 2010), the kind of text to which the students were accustomed, and a critical theory book on disability studies (Davis 2013a). One of the major arguments the authors in Meloncon’s (2013a) collection make is that considering the needs of users with disabilities also makes one a better and more desirable technical communicator in general: i.e., accessible practice is effective practice, whether in terms of document design or pedagogy. As a case in point, Pass (2013) argues, “Effective accessible design doesn’t just help those with permanent disabilities—it helps everyone” (p. 118). Oswal and Hewett (2013) similarly state “the recommended alternatives and practices [toward accessibility] will help instructors improve their courses for all other students as well” (p. 151).

Through reading, discussing, and producing content in response to the chapters in Rhetorical Accessability (Meloncon 2013a), the students learned to consider various disabilities of potential users and strategies of writing for and with these users. For example, after reading Gutsell and Hulgin (2013), the students began changing their language practices—whether using people-first language or the type of language a particular community prefers (e.g., the “deaf community”), rather than relying solely upon medical sources, popular media, or the models of language with which they were familiar. Many students had never considered designing for people with autism and found Elmore’s (2013) discussion of the social construction of independence and dependence as challenging to their worldview, a worldview dominated by neo-liberal individualism. This chapter was a first step for many to begin seeing how all humans are interdependent and that labeling others as “disabled” is a product of our social institutions’ privileging of particular kinds of interdependence (namely white, male, abled, etc.). This notion of interdependence was especially powerful, and many students reiterated throughout the semester how recognizing different types of interdependence (including their own) gave them an ethical incentive to consider people with disabilities in their designs and communications.

Arduser’s (2013) chapter on the language of diabetic communities helped students recognize that the language one uses can empower, disempower, include, or exclude users, and that how one defines disability (Pass 2013) makes a great difference to the social institutions creating accommodation law and policy. Some students noted that under the right socially constructed circumstances and the right definition, they could be categorized as having disabilities themselves. Broadly considered, Rhetorical Accessability made more accessible some of the more theoretically and ideologically challenging material in Davis’s collection (2013a), which introduced the students to arguments and information such as problems of normalcy (Davis 2013b), the history of disability law (Emens 2013), institutional inequality (Baynton 2013), and invisible disabilities (Samuels 2013).

For the major assignment in the course, a service-learning project, Colton developed a relationship with the local Center for Persons with Disabilities (CPD). The students would video and caption CPD guest lectures (given by persons with a disability or loved ones affected by disability), then edit the videos by adding various b-roll footage, images, documents, and presentation slides in a manner that would fit the screencasting genre and would be suitable for online learning. To prepare the students for the final project and allow them to practice their video production and captioning skills in the context of the readings, the course was organized around two additional major assignments: reading reflections and an intervention assignment. The reading reflection assignment prompted students to summarize the disability studies and technical communication readings for the past two weeks (usually four articles) and respond to them, similar to a typical summary/response essay. Reading reflections early in the semester were in the form of a written essay; reading reflections later in the semester were in the form of a screencast. This format enabled students to practice their presentation design skills (such as Williams’s (2010) principles of clarity, relevance, animation, and plot), as well as practice their skills in captioning for significant sounds (Zdenek 2011) through the production of three-minute videos.

Inspired by and modeled after Zdenek’s own pedagogical practices,[1] the intervention assignment gave the students a chance to look for something in their own life that was inaccessible in some manner to a person with disabilities. For this assignment, some students continued to work on their captioning skills by uploading captions (via free online software such as Amara) to a YouTube video of their choice that had no captions or poor captions as a result of YouTube’s automatic-captioning algorithm. Other students chose to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 to edit the code and content of a website toward better worldwide accessibility (Lewthwaite and Swan 2013). These website interventions included writing alternate text for images and, where possible, revising the content on the site by creating linear reading paths, informative (rather than “cute”) titles and headings, and writing in plain language (Jarrett, Redish, and Summers 2013). Through these assignments, students engaged with concepts of rhetoric, digital media, and disability studies. This engagement proved productive in at least two ways: introducing concerns of social justice into the practice of technical communication and prompting reflection on social justice issues—even beyond concerns specific to disability studies.


The findings reported in this article address two of the broader study’s research questions:

  1. What are students’ perspectives on the relevance of social justice to their professional field? to their own professional goals?
  2. What factors were useful for fostering in students a critical reflection on social justice?

One type of data informing this article is anonymized student assignments: four reading reflections and an intervention assignment. This data addresses research question one by conveying student perspectives at multiple points throughout the semester and research question two by indicating whether and to what extent assignments prompted students to engage in critical reflection on social justice-related concepts. One limitation of this type of data stems from the rhetorical context of assignments: some students may say what they think a professor wants to hear in an effort to get a good grade. Another limitation is that this data alone is unlikely to uncover factors beyond readings and assignments that are useful for fostering critical reflection on social justice.

We engaged in several strategies to mitigate these limitations. First, Colton took care to create a supportive discussion environment (online and in person) in which students could share a range of perspectives. He intentionally asked open-ended questions, gave time and validation to different viewpoints, and asked students to do their best to avoid discriminatory language but also not police each other as they were learning new discourse practices regarding disability. A second strategy for mitigating limitations was to provide students with assignment descriptions and grading rubrics that explicitly focused on critical engagement (i.e., not on arguing a particular point or advocating for an instructor-selected position), and grading comments reinforced that focus on critical engagement, not on parroting a particular view. Third, we engaged in three types of triangulation to improve the rigor of the study and validity of the findings (Denzin 1978; Patton 1999):

  • Sources: We analyzed several sets of data collected by the same method—for example, reading reflections produced by students at different points throughout the semester.
  • Methods: Participants produced data through different methods—e.g., semi-structured interviews, written essays, and multimedia documents.
  • Analyst: We engaged in iterative, joint data analysis to develop the coding scheme.

Students were informed of the study at the beginning of the semester, given opportunities to ask questions, and provided with an information sheet that detailed how they could opt out of the study (as well as other information, such as purpose, benefits, and risks of the study). Students could opt out at two levels: 1) removing only their individual assignments from the study and 2) removing any collaborative assignments to which they contributed. To minimize coercion, the opt-out procedure enabled students to withdraw at any time[2] without their instructor knowing until after grades were submitted. A university employee who was unaffiliated with the study agreed to collect any forms (which were attached to the information sheets provided to every student) and hold them until after grades were submitted, at which point the assignments of participating students could be anonymized for analysis.

Students were also invited to participate in a semi-structured interview after classes had finished meeting for the semester. To minimize coercion, Walton conducted all recruiting, scheduling, and interviewing without Colton’s involvement or knowledge of which students participated until after grades were submitted. This method provided a different rhetorical environment for data collection, in which participants could enact a greater degree of freedom in expressing their views (Moeller, Walton, and Price 2015). Interviews ranged from 30-45 minutes and addressed the following topics: a) students’ experiences and perceptions of the course, b) effects of the course on their perspective of social justice, c) effects of the course on their professional goals, d) effects of the course on their feelings of preparedness for entering their profession, and e) their own perceptions of their learning outcomes. No students opted out of the research study, and nine of the 20 students participated in an interview.

Findings were identified through iterative formal coding of interview transcripts and student assignments to identify patterns of meaning (Braun and Clark 2006; Miles and Huberman 1994 p. 55–69). In the first round of coding, Colton and Walton independently coded the same subset of data, noting all direct and indirect references to social justice, such as describing challenges faced by marginalized people and advocating accessible communication design. We created memos to note potential patterns and relationships among these patterns. Based on patterns we both saw emerging in the data, we iteratively developed and applied a joint coding scheme from which three themes emerged:

  1. Reasons to engage in inclusive, accessible communication design: being a more proficient and valuable technical communicator; doing what is ethical.
  2. Ability to engage in inclusive, accessible communication design by recognizing exclusionary practices and identifying ways to make communication more inclusive to people with disabilities, in terms of both usability and representation.
  3. Awareness of connections between social justice and technical communication beyond issues specific to disabilities.

These themes emerged across multiple data types, across the semester, and across students. Table 1 below shows the distribution and general prominence of these themes. Each letter (A, B, C) indicates at least one application of a particular code according to data type and student.This table shows the distribution and prominence of themes. Each row represents a student; 20 students total. Each column represents a source of data; there are six data sources. The columns in order from left to right are reflection 1, reflection 2, intervention assignment, reflection 3, reflection 4, and interview. Columns are ordered chronologically from left to right. Reflection 1 occurred at the beginning of the semester; interviews took place after classes were over. Table cells represent a particular data source (represented in columns) for a particular student (represented in rows). Where a student’s data source contained at least one application of code for theme A, B, and/or C, that cell contains an A, B, and/or C. Theme A is reasons to engage in inclusive, accessible communication design. Theme B is ability to engage in inclusive, accessible communication design. And theme C is awareness of connections between social justice and technical communication. These themes appeared across students and across data types, with theme C appearing much more frequently in data sources produced near the end of the semester and after the semester. The prevalence of themes was pretty comparable across students, except for students 6 and 20, whose data contained no relevant codes until the end of the semester: reflection 4 and interview for student 6; reflections 3 and 4 for student 20.


Our findings suggest that facilitating students’ awareness of disability can serve as a productive entry point for helping students recognize the relevance of social justice to the work of communication design. The findings suggest how students can begin to revise their practices to reflect this change in perspective regarding the role of the field and their place within it.

Reasons to Engage in Inclusive, Accessible Communication Design

The first theme conveys patterns of students’ reasons to engage in inclusive, accessible communication design. The most immediate insight was that making design more accessible simply made them better technical communicators. This insight broadened their perceptions of the role of the technical communicator—e.g., whether as a web designer, a manual writer, or an editor—to include a consideration of all potential users, especially people with disabilities:

“As technical communicators, it is our job to write and communicate about these technologies. [. . .] However, because users’ technological embodiments aren’t all the same, documentation will not be all the same. It will require that we are adaptable to different users’ needs.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Meloncon (2013b)]

“It is our job as technical communicators to provide autism-friendly applications and programs through design principles, usability tests, and audience analyses.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Elmore (2013)]

In addition, students indicated that considering accessibility would make them a greater asset to employers or would provide them with cultural capital by setting themselves apart from others in the field of technical communication:

“As we create these user-centric documents, we will be aware of what we need to do to make them accessible in order to reach a more broad audience. By being able to reach a more variety of audience, we will become more valuable technical communicators.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Elmore (2013)]

“A more sound knowledge of people and disabilities would be very beneficial to me as a technical writer.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Elmore (2013); Jarrett, Redish, and Summers (2013); and Meloncon (2013b)]

Finally, beyond a consideration of accessibility making them better technical communicators, some students articulated a concern for ethics and social justice. Moving from a constitutive “this is what a technical communicator does” to a normative “this is what a technical communicator should do,” the students began to posit accessibility as more than just a job of the technical communicator; instead, communicating accessibly is also a means to express and enact an ethical value:

“It is important to be ethical in the workplace by not empowering stereotypes or social bias.” [Source: Reflection 3 in response to Davis (2013b)]

“People all have different problems, but some are just more visible than others. As we help make content accessible for everyone, we will understand our fellow human beings that much better.” [Source: Reflection 3 in response to Linton (1998)]

“It is not ethical to design for the abled while ignoring the disabled.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Meloncon (2013b)]

“The more technical communicators that are aware of these kinds of issues the more the industry in general will change. So, it’s the kind of thing that can snowball, and have a greater effect than even just on that particular classroom.” [Source: Interview]

The above quotes indicate that many students began identifying a concern for people with disabilities and for composing with accessibility as more than just an expanded role of the technical communicator. Students articulated ethical commitments exceeding their job descriptions, including the following: discrimination of people with disabilities is wrong; normalcy is dangerous; an appreciation of difference is important; technical communicators can create societal change; and the students themselves, alongside and by paying attention to people with disabilities, can be the instigators of this change.

Ability to Engage in Inclusive, Accessible Communication Design

The second theme involves students’ ability to recognize and engage in inclusive communication design: inclusive in the sense of being usable for people with disabilities and inclusive in the sense of being respectfully representative of people with disabilities. Regarding usability, students identified several examples of problematic design:

“Going from a simple search engine page to this sudden and immediate page full of visual images, links, and sounds can be overwhelming, even stressful.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Jarrett, Redish, and Summers (2013)]

“A few of the slides were completely covered in text, and because there was a lot of text, the text was small. This made the presentation difficult to read and hard to digest the information that was most vital.” [Source: Reflection 1, sharing a personal anecdote in response to Jarrett, Redish, and Summers (2013)]

“For low-literacy users, even locating the option for TTS [Kindle’s text-to-speech feature] could be an issue. There are several links at the top of the reading interface, and TTS is located under the settings link.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Jarrett, Redish, and Summers (2013)]

“Not captioning videos excludes people who cannot hear, have difficulty hearing, have difficulty processing aural input, and people who simply have a hard time understanding the speaker’s accent from enjoying the benefits of public videos.” [Source: Intervention assignment]

As demonstrated in the above quotes, students identified a range of examples of document type (e.g., online search site, slide presentation, ebook, online video) and of people being marginalized (e.g., people with cognitive differences, with sensory differences, and with low literacy in a particular language). Students recommended specific changes to improve inclusivity, such as fewer, more meaningful links and multiple representations of the same content, such as image, text, audio track, and closed captioning. Noting that no single design could ideally accommodate everyone, several students suggested recruiting people representing wide ranges and types of abilities to engage in user testing, and one student recommended creating multiple versions of the same document, each with full and equal content to avoid further marginalizing people.

Communication design was also described as exclusionary for problematic representations of marginalized groups. For example, after reading the following sentence on a local business’s homepage, “Almost anyone can bowl, even if you have a disability,” a student referenced Gutsell and Hulgin (2013), saying:

“By placing this on their website, the bowling alley has incorporated exclusionary language when their goal is to convey that they are inclusionary—their language is doing exactly the opposite of what they would like it to do by embracing the supercrip metaphor as an advertising tool.” [Source: Reflection 2 in response to Gutsell & Hulgin (2013)]

The most commonly described examples of problematic representations involved people with disabilities being used as a means to an end, such as advertising, fundraising, or winning political office. Students described these representations as exclusionary, noting that they dehumanize and misrepresent people with disabilities and their interests.

Though positive, we do not see the students’ design recommendations themselves as the primary contribution to social justice pedagogy but rather the change in student perspectives and awareness that these recommendations represent. In identifying examples of what makes communication design marginalizing versus empowering, students demonstrated the ability to take action, to engage in the inclusive practices that they had described as important to being proficient technical communicators and ethical people.

Several students described their subsequent efforts to make documentation more inclusive in the organizations where they work or volunteer, including a food pantry, a domestic abuse shelter, a local museum, and the college of natural resources. Other students emphasized the importance of pairing awareness and action:

“I felt like I had to just think on a personal level, like, how can I improve it? […] For example, saying, ‘We need to provide captions for videos,’ but then also having a tutorial video of how to provide captions. It’s all fine and great that people are aware of the situation, but if they don’t know how to resolve it, then it doesn’t really go anywhere. So there’s actually no social justice; it’s just an idea.” [Source: Interview]

Awareness of Connections between Social Justice and Technical Communication

The third theme provides evidence of students making connections to broader notions of social justice beyond disability. We see here a critical awareness of experiences of people who occupy positions of lesser privilege because of their gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality, as well as ability. For example, in reflecting upon their readings, students engaged with notions of normalization and power, historical justifications for discrimination, and positionality as socially and culturally constructed. Students then began noting the relevance of these concepts to multiple marginalized groups:

“Linton [1998] states that disability was constructed to serve certain ends, specifically a compromised social position. Taking that further, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are also socially constructed.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Linton (1998)]

“Baynton [2013] addresses the notion that labels, such as those for disabilities, are powerful weapons for inequality and are used to justify treating people differently.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Baynton (2013)]

“There are similarities between people with disabilities and an LGBT individual. It’s a personal decision to come out, whether as gay or having depression.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Samuels (2013)]

“Disability rights is very much like a civil rights issue.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Baynton (2013)]

“This idea of normalcy strives to make humans appear as closely related to one another as inhumanly possible: in behavior, dress and appearance, health, and intelligence, among many other aspects.” [Source: Reflection 3 in response to Davis (2013b)]

Noting the relevance of these concepts to multiple marginalized groups, some students became more attuned to issues of inequality in their day-to-day lives. This awareness led to empathy that could inform the decisions they make as communicators: for example, taking care to use people-first language and respecting the rights of people to name aspects of their own identity:

“I think I’m more aware of those around me and the automatic judgments that are passed, and things like that. So, I think that social justice and accessibility and all of that really played a role in how I view those around me.” [Source: Interview]

“It’s very important that we understand the definitions and terms [preferred by members of marginalized groups] but also understand, kinda, what they’re going through. Take a walk in their shoes.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Price (2013)]

We find this increased critical awareness particularly encouraging in light of students’ early perspectives on social justice. Students consistently described their views of social justice at the beginning of the semester as unrelated to their own lives and certainly to their profession, with many explaining either that they had never heard the term before or that they had vaguely related it to notions of picketing and protesting:

“Student: I didn’t think it [social justice] had anything to do with technical writing at all. I just thought it was people, like, campaigning for different things or fighting for different rights. [. . .] I had an idea it was doing the right thing, but I didn’t figure that was a big part of technical writing at all.

Interviewer: Did your perspective change over the course of the semester?

Student: One hundred percent. It was crazy. When I would create designs, I wouldn’t factor in different audiences. That’s the main thing. […] It just didn’t really factor into my designs. I felt like a really bad person after that, but I’m glad I took this class because now I know.” [Source: Interview]

We see this increased critical awareness—e.g., moving from vague notions of social justice to a commitment to consider marginalized audiences in one’s communication design—as a good start. But the complexity of understanding, commitment to righting unjust inequalities, and awareness of complicity varied across students. For example, Table 1 suggests student 20 did not embrace (or perhaps did not understand) these notions, even advocating for design strategies that were explicitly identified as oppressive in the readings:

“We can learn from these poster children in our own design. Creating something that is rhetorically pleasing and evokes emotion is the surefire way to grab people’s attention.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Longmore (2013)]

Also, while many students embraced people-first language, others resented what they saw as constraining political correctness:

“[Using people-first language] can be very important in emphasizing the fact that they’re a person first, but at the same time it can really grate on people sometimes, too, to have their vocabulary policed like that. And it can create negative feelings.” [Source: Interview]

As the above quote suggests, not all students saw social justice as a major professional consideration, even by the end of the semester; however, the data did show a consistent and clear pattern of increased critical awareness informing their communication design to be more inclusive. From the same student:

“In the end, it isn’t just about disabilities, it is about everyone’s right to be a part of society and to make their own choices in their lives.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Samuels (2013)]


This article addresses the need for more research on pedagogical practices that supplement instrumental considerations of communication design with ethical considerations of social justice. As instructors have expressed difficulty and concern for how to implement such practices in their teaching, we have proposed a strategy: introducing issues of social justice to students by initially pointing their attention to disability and its immediate and more accessible exigency to communication design.

Drawn from our action-research/service-learning project in which such a class was taught, we present three themes from students’ discussion and practice: 1) an expanded notion of what it means to be an effective, credible, and ethical technical communicator; 2) an ability to recognize exclusionary communication design and revise toward inclusivity; and, as they begin to view accessible composing not only as a role of communication designers, but as an ethical commitment to inclusivity, many students 3) articulated a more complex critical awareness of social justice beyond concerns specific to disability.

These themes are not disparate, and their relationships are important. We believe that the earlier themes are a precondition for the later themes. In viewing the distribution of themes in Table 1, we can see that theme C appears more frequently in data types produced toward the end of the semester and that it almost always appears after or alongside the first two themes (A and B). This suggests that inclusive practices facilitated by attention to accessibility can serve as first steps in enacting social justice as a professional habit in the sense of a neo-Aristotelian virtue. Technical communication instructors interested in social justice are struggling to find ways of introducing the topic to students who are accustomed to instrumentalist ways of thinking (Scott 2004). From a student interview:

“Part of the reason we’re taking this [course] is to see the different points of view and to form our own opinions about it. And to a certain extent, we do need that background to see where all these other people are coming from. But, since it’s a course that’s preparing us to go out into the work-field and to be technical writers, I did feel that we need to have most everything in the course to have a practical application.” [Source: Interview]

We believe understanding these connected themes as conditions for one another (not necessarily as a progression, though it might occur in that manner) can help instructors develop pedagogical strategies for implementing social justice concerns. Importantly for reaching instrumentalist students, these strategies are neither didactic nor extraneous to the most important issues in the field.

For students to begin thinking of communication design as an ethical endeavor, one with implications of social justice, they must also see such an ethical stance as relevant to their personal and professional goals. Research shows that students are more motivated to learn if the instructor connects the material to students’ interests and that incorporating goal-directed practices is critical (Ambrose et al. 2010). This is why beginning the conversation with disability is so fruitful. Accessible design feels practical to students, so it is congruent with instrumentalist views of the field. This strategy allows instructors to introduce social justice by building out from a shared foundation.

In what they may expect to be an instrumental course on digital media, students can be unwilling to engage with “uncomfortable” injustices relating to race, sexuality, and other identities. Starting with disability allows students to recognize more easily the existence of privilege and how societal norms serve some populations better than others. This places the students in a better position to talk about what they might consider more uncomfortable facets of privilege (race, gender, class)—facets many of them have been taught to reject outright or view as an agenda in contradiction to their own personal value systems. Disability is not readily associated with any particular political position and thus can enable more digestible consideration of other social justice topics.

Our hope is that this article will provide not only new strategies for those introducing students to the idea that social justice is relevant to communication design but also give encouragement to those instructors who wish to do so but do not know where to begin. As a concluding remark, let us say that by positing disability as insight into social justice pedagogy in communication design, we have no wish to relegate disability as an issue of lesser importance or lesser complexity than other issues (such as race, class, gender, and sexuality). Just because we are advocating disability as a starting point to engage with broader concerns of social justice does not mean that disability in and of itself does not require deep critical engagement. If anything, not enough work has been done on disability in communication design, particularly technical communication, and here we help raise disability as a central concern for all technical communicators, especially those instructors interested in social justice pedagogy.


We’d like to thank Jeanie Peck and Alma Burgess at the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. Their partnership was key to the service-learning component of the course we discuss in the article. Thank you also to our students, who graciously participated in this research, allowing us to learn alongside them. We would also like to thank special issue editor Andrew Lucchesi for bringing this issue to fruition and to acknowledge Sushil Oswal’s contribution in conceptualizing this special issue.


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[1] Email correspondence, July 12, 2014.

[2] Like almost all IRB-approved studies, ours allows participants to withdraw at any time—including after grades were submitted—but it was in the period before grade submission that the risk of coercion warranted an intermediary in the withdrawal process.

About the Authors

Jared S. Colton is an assistant professor of technical communication and rhetoric at Utah State University. His research addresses the intersections of rhetorical theory, ethics, and politics within professional and technical communication, whether in pedagogy or sites of social justice. He is particularly interested in how classical and contemporary ethical frameworks inform the production, practice, and critique of collective activism via social and mobile media and accessibility technologies. He has published in Enculturation, Rhetoric Review, and the Journal of College Science Teaching.

Rebecca Walton is an assistant professor of technical communication and rhetoric at Utah State University. She studies the role that communication can play in more equitably distributing power. Her research interests include social justice, human dignity and human rights, and qualitative methods for cross-cultural research. Her work has appeared in Technical Communication Quarterly; Journal of Business and Technical Communication; and Information Technologies and International Development, as well as other journals and edited collections.

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